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A gamble worth taking

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THOMPSON -- The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is rolling the dice on Manitoba's northernmost casino, but will the gamble pay off for Thompson?

The AMC announced in March its fourth casino will open in the Hub of the North. Specifics will follow, but it's expected the project will proceed swiftly.

"I'm not against this thing at all, but I do know in my own heart that there are some ramifications," says Peter Zaworonok, a longtime Thompsonite. "There's good and bad in everything we do in life."

In this case, the good consists of about 140 new jobs. The boost is well-timed, given the closure of the city's nickel smelter and refinery as early as the end of 2015.

There is also certain to be increased consumer traffic into the city, much of it from surrounding reserves, with gains felt by hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

The bad lies in importing large-scale gambling to a community and region with a considerable aboriginal population besieged by addiction, homelessness and desperation.

Driving through downtown Thompson and seeing some of the social problems on display, a harsh reality seems evident: Many casino patrons will be those who can least afford to lose to the house.

That these individuals could become ensnared by the promise of a quick payout is not an irrational fear. Nor is it an uncommon one in this community.

Certainly some of the Thompsonites with whom I speak about the casino share this concern. Yet trepidation over being perceived as racially insensitive prevents them from going on the record.

I can appreciate that. Race is a delicate issue in Thompson, even if the casino conversation has nothing to do with skin colour and everything to do with contrasting harms versus gains.

It's a debate with which Al McLauchlan, the mayor of The Pas, is familiar.

In 2002, northern Manitoba's first gaming house, the Aseneskak Casino, opened on The Pas' neighbouring reserve of Opaskwayak Cree Nation.

"The fear of increased social costs has not been borne out here that I have seen," McLauchlan tells me. "People are going to gamble if they want, either here, online or in Winnipeg. I have not seen a higher level of crime."

McLauchlan says Aseneskak is a tourism draw that is well-maintained and offers good-paying jobs to residents.

With the Thompson casino to be similar in size to Aseneskak, McLauchlan says Thompsonites can expect hectic volumes initially before things level off over time.

"Really, the community members won't even know the casino is there unless they go there themselves," he says.

For his part, Jasyn Lucas, an aboriginal Thompsonite, sees the casino as a positive development.

"It is exciting to know that aboriginal leadership are taking steps forward," he says, to help "aboriginal individuals and business to move forward, excel and compete."

Lucas, an artist, points out that beyond gambling, casinos offer a great venue for live acts, cultural showcases and conferences.

Nonetheless, as Anne Golden, former president of the Conference Board of Canada, noted in the National Post last year, the research is lacking on whether gambling brings economic value to a host community.

Still, drawing from a 2005 literature review by Maryland University professor Melissa Kearney, Golden wrote, "Smaller communities that are economically depressed or lack development, and where the patronage comes from outside the locale are more likely to see positive economic benefits from a casino." As a smaller (pop. 13,123), economically uncertain community with a large trading area (up to 65,000 people), Thompson fits this description.

Based on the experiences in The Pas and the demand for economic diversification, a casino in Thompson is worth endorsing.

It means jobs for First Nations people who might not otherwise have the opportunity. It means a drawing card for Thompson and a broadened customer base for its commercial sector.

Officials just have to ensure counselling and appropriate supports are accessible so the casino does not become another source of addiction for the desperate.

Jonathon Naylor is editor of the Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2014 A13

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