For a government staring at a string of deficits, it's the kind of online game Greg Selinger's New Democrats might find impossible to resist.

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For a government staring at a string of deficits, it's the kind of online game Greg Selinger's New Democrats might find impossible to resist.

Canadians are spending an estimated $1 billion a year gambling online -- most of it on offshore sites -- and provinces are already rushing in to milk that new cash cow.

Later this year, six of them -- British Columbia, Quebec and the four Atlantic provinces, through their lottery corporations -- plan to share a common online gaming platform that will offer poker and casino-style games.

"We know that there are over 2,000 illegal gaming sites that Atlantic Canadians are accessing on a regular basis. And we've estimated that they're taking over $50 million out of the region every year," said Courtney Pringle-Carver, a spokeswoman for the Atlantic Lottery Corp.

"We do want to deliver the games that players want to play," she said in an interview, adding many players would prefer to play on a "safe, regulated gaming site because they know that that money will go back to the communities that they live in."

The Atlantic Lottery Corp. and the British Columbia Lottery Corp. have offered forms of online gaming for several years, including lottery ticket purchases and various 'pick and click' games. So far, online gambling represents only about one per cent of their revenues, but that percentage is likely to climb as the corporations start offering the types of games gamblers can only access on non-regulated sites.

In a controversial move last year, British Columbia upped the weekly spending limit on its PlayNow.com site to $9,999, from only $120. The site has 135,000 registered players. Players load their "online player wallets" by credit card or through Interac online payments.

PlayNow generated $23.5 million in revenue for BCLC in 2008-2009, or one per cent of its total. "We estimate that by the end of 2012/13, e-gaming revenue will be about 3.5 per cent of BCLC's overall revenue," a corporation spokeswoman said.

The Selinger government has said it will make a decision by summer whether to deal itself into this lucrative new revenue stream.

There would no doubt be some backlash to such as a move as polls show Canadians are nervous about governments venturing into online gaming. According to an Ipsos Reid survey posted on the Canadian Gaming Association's website, 61 per cent of Canadians are personally opposed to it as a form of entertainment and 38 per cent feel it should be banned outright. Yet, 50 per cent say it should be permitted as long as it is regulated by government.

As well, the Opposition Conservatives are already on record as opposing the introduction of government-run online gambling in Manitoba. "We think it's the wrong way for this government to be going," Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen said.

The Addictions Foundation of Manitoba has also expressed concerns, saying it would be more difficult to identify problem gamblers, who wouldn't have to venture outdoors to part with their money.

However, a U.S. gambling expert said online gambling may offer more safeguards than traditional bricks-and-mortar casinos.

"Online, there's a history for every transaction," said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Potentially, this could give researchers better information about how problem gambling patterns develop and raise red flags about individual gamblers.

"You can't say, 'Somebody is going to spend $1,000 (on) lottery tickets (online), so you shouldn't allow this,' " Schwartz said of Manitoba's potential move to online gambling. "They could do the same thing with existing gambling. In fact, with online gambling you've got a lot more controls over the transactions."

He said privacy may be a bigger issue with online gambling than whether it is better or worse than traditional gaming forms. "If you're a political candidate, would you want people to know how many lottery tickets you buy?"

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

 

Online gambling facts

$800 million to $1 billion -- the amount Canadians spend on unregulated and offshore Internet gambling sites each year.

$32 to $40 million -- Manitoba's likely share of that online gaming, according to the Manitoba Lotteries Corp.

1.5 per cent -- percentage of Manitobans in a 2006 Addictions Foundation of Manitoba Survey who said they had tried online gambling.

Oct. 7, 1995 -- first global instance of online gambling: the purchase of lottery tickets in Liechtenstein.

1998 -- year the first Internet poker room in the world went online; by 2003 the game was expanding greatly, according to a University of Lethbridge report.

$2.4 billion -- Estimated worldwide revenue from online poker in 2006.

 

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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