Gambling in Canada has enjoyed a rich and, at times, a complicated history. In the present day, strict regulations apply to any sportsbook looking to set up in business but the overall landscape is a positive one for both operators and customers alike.
When getting involved online, it’s fascinating to look at the history of gambling in Canada and it’s one that stretches far back over many hundreds of years.
Among the many documents relating to the history of wagering are those which tell us about some ancient games. Included in this is Slahal which is a rudimentary stick game played by the first Canadian people south of the Niagara. Slahal was also popular along the Pacific Northwest where it was also known as stickgame, bonegame or handgame.
It’s still played today by certain tribes and it traditionally used to involve the shin bones of an animal such as the deer. Players are split into two teams and there is a set of two bones in play – one with a stripe and one without.
One team then takes the bones and starts to swap them between the hands of the players. Songs are sung while this is in process and the opposing team has to focus while the exchanges take place. At the end of the song, the team with the bones comes to a halt and the opposition has to guess where the bones are. Special scoring sticks are used to keep count of the tally and this is where the name ‘stickgame’ originates.
Modern party games have helped to keep up the tradition of Slahal alive and made sure that its legacy hasn’t died out.
We come forward a few years now to the game of Faro which is played with a regular deck of 52 playing cards. It may have all-but died out in the modern era but Faro was a very popular game during the US Gold Rush and that popularity extended over the Canadian border.
Within Faro, there are some similarities to poker in the sense that there is a dealer and a number of players involved in the game. There are comparisons to baccarat too because the dealer can also be referred to as the ‘banker’ while cards are dealt from a mechanism known as the ‘shoe.’
Aside from those obvious comparisons, the rules of Faro are quite different. The first card was dispensed with as it could be seen when the deck was placed into the box. From that point, 13 more cards were dealt face up into 13 spaces on the table and players would bet on each as they came out. This was essentially a high or low bet – translated as win or lose – and Faro was very much a game of chance.
Huge amounts of money changed hands at the Faro table but the game was quickly overtaken by the likes of poker and blackjack. Perhaps the ability to work out a strategy saw the popularity of Faro begin to wane and while you’re unlikely to find it at modern-day online casinos, it retains a niche following in parts of Northern America.
Timeline – Important Dates
The following dates are pivotal to the timeline relating to the Canadian history of wagering.
6000BC – The Beginnings
Gambling really can be traced back this far and many thousands of years ago, the first Canadians, members of the First Nations were playing primitive games. Some of the earliest sports involved horses so we can trace the origins of horse racing and other events such as polo, back to these times. Wrestling also developed from these days along with early versions of hockey and javelin. Tests of strength and pace began to become commonplace so running events over set distances were also staged.
One of the obvious questions to spring from this discovery relates to the issue of wagering. Was anything placed down as currency during a game and was there a clear winner and loser? In a sense, there was a winner but it’s said that the activities that were performed many thousands of years ago were more to do with personal and spiritual development. A pastime such as Slahal would do much to bring people together so, while these activities were widespread and continued to grow, the element of wagering wasn’t always present…
This began to change when early forms of currency were brought in but those involved would essentially wager anything that was thought to be of value. Livestock was a typical option and this pattern continued for many thousands of years.
At the time, Canada was still waiting to be ‘discovered’ so the next big development occurred on the east side of the Atlantic.
1380 – Richard III’s Law on Gambling
While not directly related to the country, this particular point in the history of wagering would eventually have a ‘knock-on’ effect. Over in England, King Richard III banned dice games across the country. This was an interesting, early sign that unlicensed gambling came with certain issues. The Canadian history of gambling has many parallels and legislation continues to this day.
Back in 1380, King Richard felt that these activities were proving to be a distraction for his soldiers and he needed them to be focused for strategic battle. The ban would ultimately extend throughout the British Commonwealth and it would be some time before those activities would become legal in Canada.
1497 – The Discovery of Canada
Those early games of chance were found by John Cabot when he discovered Canada in 1497. Wagering inside the country predates the official discovery of the nation by many thousands of years but when Cabot arrived, little had really changed.
As a new and established country, however, the history of gambling in Canada was about to take off from this point onwards.
1497-1892 – The Spread of Casino Games
Over a long stretch of time, early casino and dice games started to be introduced into the country. In this period lasting nearly 400 years, we began to see the invention of roulette and popular card variants including poker.
This was significant in the history of gambling as a whole but it would have specific bearing on the development of games across Canada. As new settlers arrived, they brought these table, dice and card games with them and their popularity began to spread throughout the nation.
1867 – The Birth of Canadian Nation
On July 1st, 1867, Canada was officially born as a nation: Prior to this point, the land was divided into three British colonies – the Province of Canada, the Province of New Brunswick and the Province of Nova Scotia.
While the new, united nation didn’t have an immediate, direct change on the history of wagering, we would soon see some sweeping changes. The ability to pass new laws across the fledgling Canadian country was about to come in with devastating effect.
1892 – The Criminal Code
Gambling started to stutter at this point as a nationwide ban came into force. Under the Canadian Criminal Code of 1892, every form of gambling was banned and there wasn’t even any attempt to provide licensed opportunities that would take the pastime off the streets.
Largely based on an English equivalent that was passed in 1878, the Canadian Code was put in place to counter a number of dubious activities. Gun Control was high on the agenda and the rise of the automobile saw some drink driving regulations come into being.
At the same time, wagering was severely dealt with under this nationwide ban but, as the practise was driven firmly underground, it wouldn’t be too long before these Draconian laws were relaxed just a fraction.
By 1900 – The Spread of Bingo and Raffles
The first signs of a lifting of the 1892 ban came around the turn of the 20th century when certain games were allowed providing that the profits went to a good cause. As a result, bingo and raffles were permitted by the Canadian government as long as any revenue made from these were received by religious or charitable organisations.
It was a very small step but one that would ultimately lead to wider relaxations of restrictions placed by the 1892 Canadian Criminal Code.
By 1910 – An Amendment on Horse Racing Gambling
A much bigger step followed within the next ten years and this was a significant point as far as the history of wagering in Canada was concerned. By this stage, the sport had become popular in the country and many of the big meetings had been incepted by this point.
The Queen’s Plate had been run at the Woodbine Racetrack in Ontario since 1960 while other big races started to become established. Betting on horse racing had been driven underground since the 1892 ruling and the government duly decided to lift some restrictions. As a result, a legal amendment would allow licensed pari-mutuel gambling on the sport.
By 1925 – Licenses for Trade Fairs
At this point in time, Canadian fairs were permitted to run games of chance. Local fairs had been a popular destination for would-be bettors as gambling events, and the authorities realised that this was another area that should be licensed, rather than strictly prohibited as a draconian outlook was forcing things underground.
Dice game was prevalent at this time but not exclusive and this area of wagering grew steadily from 1925 onwards.
By 1969 – The Lottery Act
By the end of the 1960s, an act had been passed making it legal to provide state-run lotteries. Remember that each Canadian province is free to pass its own laws so it’s not always possible to put a definitive date next to each major development.
What we can say is that from the end of the decade, many provinces had acted on the new laws that allowed them to incept their own lottery service. It’s another important stage in the history of wagering and in five short years, we were about to see another major breakthrough.
1974 – Charity Lottery for the Olympics
With the 1976 Olympics in Montreal looming, a series of funding initiatives were set up and among these was a lottery specifically dedicated to the cause. The first draw was made on April 15, 1974 and an initial round of sales produced a revenue of $15 million CAD.
Tickets cost $10 and a $1 million prize was shared between a nine-woman syndicate in Quebec City. This was the biggest lottery win at the time and while this countrywide operation attracted some predictable criticism from inside the country, there’s no doubt that it had been a success and it would pave the way for more gambling.
By 1985 – Provincial Jurisdiction
The 1974 lottery had been a success but a change in legislation in the mid-1980s took certain jurisdictions away from the federal government. By 1985 it had been ruled that any regulations relating to betting, that is, gambling laws would be handled to provincial governments and this would lead to a rather confusing picture moving forward.
The nationwide lottery of 1974 would become a thing of the past as local governments of the provinces took their own stances on the issue of gambling within their territory. As we’ll see when we move through later years, the history of wagering would be very different depending on where you lived: Some locations would become open to the possibility of lottery, casino play and sports betting while others would work hard to keep a ban in place.
1989, 1993 – The First Land-based Casinos
In 1989, we saw the first evidence of one province truly taking advantage of that earlier legislation. Winnipeg was the location for the first land based casino and immediately, a booming industry followed.
This was a major milestone and the casino sector had truly broken through. The Crystal Casino in Winnipeg also hit a global landmark as the first government owned casino in the Western Hemisphere. It was closed in 1997, but Winnipeg retained two additional casinos which took over the Crystal’s accounts and operations.
Four years on from that initial opening, Montreal followed suit with a land based casino of its own. The aptly named Casino De Montreal first opened its doors in 1993 and in the present day, it is the largest casino in the country.
With a gaming floor in excess of 526,000 square feet, the Casino De Montreal has to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in order to cope with the demand.
From 1990, VLTs or video lottery terminals also became popular (with the exception of British Columbia and Ontario). These machines usually feature video slot machines, keno, lottery or other.
1996 – The Establishment of the Kahnawake Gambling Commission
In 1996, the Kahnawake Gambling Commission was established. This was the year that saw the first online sports betting company hit the internet and the world of gambling started to react to the development of the digital age.
The Mohawk territory of Kahnawake is located in Quebec and it is the official licensing and regulatory authority for any wagering activity carried out within the region. There are some land based gambling houses within Kahnawake including three licensed poker rooms while the organisation regulates a number of online casinos and sportsbooks.
This is a significant landmark and one that would pave the way for the online revolution that was to follow.
1999 – An Important Legalization Date
It had taken more than 100 hundred years but finally, in 1999, the Canadian legislation moved to remove the gambling elements from the 1892 Criminal Code. Gambling was effectively made legal across the nation although it came with some heavy restrictions.
Clearly this was a significant move and another major landmark for the history of wagering in the country and current Canadian levels can all be traced back to this point in time.
2009 – Online Betting in Canada
By far the biggest change to the gambling landscape came along in 2009 when it became legal to bet online in the country. As anyone who places a bet will know, there are heavy restrictions in place but, in general, it is legal to go online and punt on sports inside Canada and beyond.
The rules and regulations that apply to anyone wanting to set up an online sports betting business using Canada as a base means that there are very few Canadian sportsbooks when compared to other parts of the world. However, it is easier for operators based overseas to provide services to Canadian residents. Naturally these companies should also be regulated by their own, relevant commissions and this point must be checked before signing up. To summarise, 2009 was a significant year in the history of wagering when online gambling was made legal.
We also saw the introduction of safety measures that would look to help players keep safe and secure while online. ECOGRA is the most notable of these and this company is set up to test and certificate online gaming software.
Future of Gambling
The Canadian history of gambling has clearly been a rich and colorful one but what does the future hold? It’s always going to be difficult to answer this question with any great certainty but it may be fair to assume that we will see more online operators open up with online casino play becoming a developing addition to the landscape.
The number of physical casinos may grow in the interim but their number has tended to remain steady and the current figure is unlikely to jump by any significant levels. We may, however, see more private gaming houses and, as we have seen over the border in the US, there have been sports betting halls added to racetracks and casinos in certain states within the country.
All of this is conjecture right now but we are sure that the future of gambling in Canada will be fascinating to follow. The history of wagering here has certainly been a rich and varied one and it deserves to continue in a positive and progressive manner.