Bad government policy is like a bomb with a very long fuse.

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This article was published 14/9/2016 (1865 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Bad government policy is like a bomb with a very long fuse.

It may lie dormant for a very long time, even for years, and show little sign it presents any danger at all. But at some point down the road, it will blow up.

Such is the case now with First Nation casinos, a bad policy at its inception that has not gotten any better with the passage of time.

The spark for current concern comes courtesy of the Aseneskak Casino in The Pas, which is owned and operated by the Opaskwayak Cree Nation and five other northern First Nations. Aseneskak has served notice it very much wants to relocate to Assiniboia Downs in Headingley, just outside the western edge of Winnipeg.

The casino's general manager says gambling activity has dropped considerably and the facility now operates at a loss. The casino and its First Nation hosts have struck a deal with Assiniboia Downs and Peguis First Nation to relocate Aseneskak so that it can benefit from being closer to a denser population. All they need now is approval from the province to make it happen.

The previous NDP government was officially dead-set against moving the casino, even though there were strident supporters, such as former Thompson MLA Steve Ashton, lobbying hard within cabinet. Would the new Tory government go where the New Democrats feared to tread? The early answer is — nobody knows for sure.

Crowns Minister Ron Schuler and Justice Minister Heather Stefanson were in The Pas this week to hear more about a potential move. According to casino management, the two ministers "didn't say they wanted us to stay, but they also didn't say they wanted us to move." Definitively vague would be a fair description of the province's position.

If you had to put a bet on it — and that seems appropriate given the subject — there is growing circumstantial evidence the PCs are not amenable to moving the casino.

At the same time the Aseneskak lobby was garnering headlines, the province released an independent report into the state of gaming in Manitoba. The report, jointly commissioned by the province and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, has determined that Manitoba is the most over-serviced jurisdiction in the country when it comes to gaming.

The report found Manitoba has the highest ratio of video lottery terminals per capita, and trails only Quebec in the total number of gaming machines. The report noted Manitobans put more than $1.5 billion into VLTs every year.

The idea of relocating another casino to the capital region may seem like a good idea for First Nations, but it is a bad idea for everyone else. Southern Manitoba has more than enough gambling options right now and adding another larger casino would only serve to steal profits from the other existing facilities. And let's remember, the province reaps tens of millions of dollars in profits from the two casinos it directly owns and operates.

First Nations will argue the province has created an uneven playing field where government casinos get access to the best markets, and First Nations are left to operate in remote and sparsely populated regions. The First Nations are right to feel aggrieved, but then again, this was a problem that existed from the very inception of the First Nation casino initiative.

The seeds for this current and growing mess were first sown in the fall of 1999 when the former NDP government of premier Gary Doer promised during the election to license up to five First Nation casinos during its first term. True to his word, Doer launched a process to invite casino proposals within weeks of being elected, with an eye towards awarding up to five licences by the summer of 2000.

Unfortunately, the process was deeply flawed from the outset. First Nations were not prepared for the process and its ambitious timeline and had trouble completing all of the detailed design and financial modelling necessary to create a viable casino plan. But that was not the only problem.

The NDP process gave no consideration to the opinions of non-aboriginal communities. Many of the proposals that came forward envisioned casinos in or very near other cities and towns. As a result, bitter disputes were sparked between FN proponents and non-aboriginal communities.

Votes were held in Brandon, Thompson and Headingley, where citizens heartily rejected the casino proposals. The plebiscite campaigns were bitterly contested, with allegations by First Nations that racism was driving opposition to their plans.

Initially, only one casino proposal went forward, the Aseneskak casino on OCN land in The Pas. Since then, two other aboriginal casinos have opened: South Beach north of Winnipeg on the Brokenhead Ojibway First Nation; and Sand Hills Casino on Swan Lake First Nation land near Carberry. Currently, Aseneskak and Sand Hills claim to be operating at a loss; South Beach, which is located closer to Winnipeg than the other two casinos, is operating at a healthy profit.

The legacy of this flawed NDP policy now lands directly in the lap of Premier Brian Pallister and his Tory government. His options are limited and unpalatable.

Allowing Aseneskak casino to relocate to Headingley would certainly curry favour with powerful aboriginal leaders, and provide First Nations with a much more lucrative pool of money to share. However, much of that money would be coming right out of provincial general revenues, as gambling at provincially owned casinos would almost certainly go down. And as data has shown, this province does not need more gambling options.

It's a dilemma wrapped in a conundrum. In fact, the only thing the Tory government could do to help the situation is to promptly tell First Nations exactly what it is prepared to do, or not do, with respect to the casino in The Pas.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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