OLGC changes make financial sense, but will have huge societal impacts

Rumours about planned changes the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission (OLGC) may impose on Ontarians are disturbing and, even though this province has a $16 billion-plus deficit to overcome, this should not be undertaken on an “at any cost” basis.

Regionally, the OLGC is apparently reexamining its casino gaming facility in the Soo and the “Sudbury Slots” operation it runs at the Sudbury Downs racetrack.

The racetrack partnership in Sudbury with OLGC is the Northern Ontario example of an arrangement made several years ago between the gaming commission and Ontario’s horse racing industry. Under this agreement, the OLGC placed slot machines at virtually all of the province’s racetracks and the host tracks reap a share of the profits that in turn support the prize purses.

This undertaking was initiated to help stabilize the racetrack industry in Ontario which employs, directly and indirectly, over 50,000 people.

Interestingly, it has been successful: people go to the racetracks, which are scattered strategically around the province anyway (the huge majority of them cater to the harness-racing community), so this aspect of gaming not only benefits the racetrack and horse racing industry, but it also exposes people to this form of entertainment.

In the Soo, the OLGC built its casino on a reclaimed industrial area located quite close to the international bridge and did so very directly in order to encourage Northern Ontario people interested in a casino gambling experience to support a domestic industry and to leave their money at home. It was also Ontario’s response to the very successful First Nations-operated Vegas Keewadin casino located across the bridge in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and is one of three casinos (it’s the smallest one) the OLGC built in other border communities. (The others are in Windsor and Niagara Falls.)

Apparently the OLGC is not happy with the revenue it’s earning from either the slot machines at the province’s racetracks or its three border-community casinos and is suggesting, at least in the case of the horse racing industry, that it plans to sever its ties with the racetracks as early as next year.

The future of the Soo casino is not as definite, but the OLGC is on record as saying that they are not happy with the profitability of its border city casinos and Soo MPP David Orazietti, a member of the Liberal government, is taking a defensive attitude on the matter, assuming his city’s casino may be on the chopping block and in so doing is likely going to be at odds with his party on the issue.

The OLGC is considering, as an alternative, bringing gaming more directly to the public and, rather than going to one’s nearest racetrack for this kind of activity, Ontarians may not have to go further than their local bar or convenience store to gamble in this way.

Rather than have gambling activities located at particular venues (like the Sudbury Downs or Soo Casino) where visiting and playing have to be part of a specially planned event, the OLGC suggests placing, at least slot machines and possibly other machine games, all over the place.

Will this mean gambling in this way will become more profitable for the OLGC and the province?

Of course it will. That’s a given. But is it a good idea? Definitely not.

The more neighbourhood gambling opportunities made easily available to Ontario residents, the more use these will get and, as surely as day follows night, many more social ills will be the very direct result.

People become addicted to gambling just as readily as they do to opium-based drugs like the OxyContin prescription medication that has been so much in the news over the past few years and that is now publicly recognized to have a real hold on an identifiable percentage of the population, certainly on Manitoulin Island.

Easily-accessible, also legal, ramped-up gambling will lay hold of the population in the very same way those anti-social drugs do and repositioning the gaming industry will not only be devastating for the province’s horse racing industry and be punitive for a small Northern city like Sault Ste. Marie but it will add enormously to Ontario’s burden of social ills as people find it that much easier to gamble away their wages.

About 15 years ago, the province of New Brunswick that had allowed machine gambling to proliferate into every conceivable retail space, finally took a look at the positives (profit for the provincial coffers) and negatives (steadily increasing gambling addictions, lost productivity and family breakups) and cancelled the whole industry, province wide.

Before Ontario makes the move it is considering as a fundraising venture through its OLGC, it should have a frank discussion with its east-coast partners in Confederation on the experiences New Brunswick had when it brought gambling to the people.

This is a very bad idea that must be vigorously resisted.