Enough Talk

It is time to take action on the dangers—and opportunities—in gambling on Native reserves

F irst Nations Gaming in Canada is billed as the first multidisciplinary study of aboriginal gaming in Canada. The book lives up to this description: its twelve essays span the historical, sociological, economic and political aspects of the issue. Contributors, including editor Yale Belanger, are all suitably credentialed and have written on this subject before; Belanger in particular is the author of Gambling with the Future: The Evolution of Aboriginal Gaming in Canada.

But despite—or perhaps because of—its ambitious breadth, reading First Nations Gaming in Canada generates a sense of incompleteness and frustration. A great deal of its research is self-admittedly inconclusive, or reveals the failure of current aboriginal policy to achieve successful outcomes. Although perhaps unintended, the work leaves the reader with a sense of the overwhelming, urgent need to change Canada’s relationship with First Nations people, not only to improve the lives of aboriginal Canadians themselves, but also to put an end to the so-called “Indian industry” of sociologists, analysts and lawyers who subsist off their misery while not actually solving the problems at hand.

An example of this is provided in Chapter 5, “Gambling Research in Canadian Aboriginal Communities: A Participatory Action Approach.” Author Harold J. Wynne sets out a proposed research framework for studying the issue of Native gaming, “Participatory Action Research,” which has been previously employed to gather information from aboriginal communities in other contexts.

Curiously, two of the three examples of past PAR projects cited by Wynne revealed that while they may have xwledge, they failed to produce any concrete results. The most egregious case was that of the 700-person community of Big Trout Lake, which spent five years on a PAR project to resolve a dispute with the Department of Indian and Northern Development over the building of a water sanitation and waste water treatment system. For all these efforts, no system was built. Wynne writes: “On the surface, it may appear as if this PAR project was unsuccessful, as it did not result in the desired outcome, which was the actual construction of a water and sewer system for the community. However, this fact in itself provides some knowledge, [including] that empowerment through PAR raises group consciousness and builds capacity.”

Sadly, this excerpt illustrates much of what is wrong with current Canadian aboriginal affairs policy. If any non-aboriginal community was told it would spend five years discussing the building of a water treatment system and none was built, regional newspapers would be full of protest letters from affected taxpayers, and local politicians would be turfed in the next election. Yet sociologists think it perfectly acceptable to subject aboriginal communities to such an exercise.

Other chapters in the book also leave the reader questioning whether these research projects are a valuable use of First Nations’ time—and of the public resources likely used to fund those projects. Chapter 6, “Exploring Gambling Impacts in Two Alberta Cree Communities: A Participatory Action Study,” includes a section on “Limitations,” which emphasizes that the project was a pilot study and “cannot be generalized to these communities as a whole … results provide only basic information … [and] the mode of survey administration was not consistent across participants.” What, then, is the real value of this study? If it does not accurately represent the extent of the problem, then it risks giving readers a false or incomplete picture of the issue.

Similarly, Chapter 10 is devoted to the fallout from the “Dutch Lerat Affair,” a case of serious misappropriation of funds by the former chair and CEO of the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority. While the chapter provides an interesting and depressingly familiar case study in corporate malfeasance among First Nations–run institutions, author (and the book’s editor) Yale Belanger concludes that “as of 2010–11, SIGA is successfully operating six casinos and the Dutch Lerat Affair is largely forgotten—notwithstanding a poor corporate response to a troublesome episode that could have turned out unfortunately for all involved.” Which raises the immediate question: why did Belanger choose to devote nearly 20 pages to this case study if it did not have a serious impact?

The most frequent conclusion in the book appears to be the call for “more research.” But given the research, which is solid—such as that presented in Chapter 8, “Gambling and Problem Gambling in North American Indigenous Peoples”—it strikes the reader that the “lack” of research is not the problem at all: the lack of action is. This chapter, for example, tells us that First Nations people gamble more than non-aboriginals, have a higher incidence of problem gambling and have different cultural attitudes toward gambling. It also confirms what common sense would tell us: that many of the other problems plaguing aboriginal communities—poverty, joblessness and alcoholism—correlate with a higher risk for problem gambling. It does not take more research to deduce that if you locate a casino in an aboriginal community, thus making gambling more accessible, you will produce an increase in problem gambling and also in other related social pathologies, including crime.

The real issue is whether the tradeoff between economic development and these ills is worth the price. This question is addressed in chapters 9 and 11, which examine the costs and benefits of casinos to a community as well as the distribution of economic benefits in particular.

Despite the clear ideological bias of Chapter 11 against the “neoliberal” agenda of the Ontario NDP and Conservative governments in the 1990s (the description of the NDP as neoliberal warrants an entire conversation on its own), the chapter makes many important observations about the impact of casinos on First Nations communities. This chapter studied Ontario’s Casino Rama. According to author Darrell Manitowabi, “the majority of employees are non–First Nations (78.6 percent as of 2002); Penn National Gaming of Pennsylvania manages it; and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation defines the rules for casino operations.” At the same time, Manitowabi notes that unemployment on the reserve plummeted from 80 percent to 10 percent, a gas station, elementary school, sports facilities, retail outlet and other infrastructure were built. According to the reserve’s chief, “anybody that is able to work is pretty well working.” Other, less positive, impacts included a loss of “peace and quiet” in the community, more children in day care now that their parents were both working, more problem gambling and more crime, including drug trafficking.

Apart from the costs and benefits of gambling to First Nations communities, there is another equally fundamental question: that of the right of First Nations to set up and operate gambling establishments in the first place. Chapters 1 through 3 address this issue, featuring examinations of different First Nations legal challenges to provincial governments’ control and regulation of the gaming industry. They form the most compelling part of the book, since the reader is unlikely to be familiar with the history of aboriginal gaming—or even know the extent to which gaming played a part in First Nations culture.

In Chapter 2, authors Morden C. Lazarus, Edwin D. Monzon and Richard B. Wodnicki present a convincing case for the right of Kahnawake Mohawks to claim an aboriginal right to conduct and regulate gaming under the Constitution Act. Gaming is a part of First Nations culture that predates the appearance of Europeans. The authors cite the following observation of an 18th-century settler on Iroquois wagering: “The sums bet on the play are immense for the Indians. Some have pledged their cabins; others have stripped themselves of their clothes and bet them against those of the opposing party.” Games of chance included betting on sports (such as lacrosse), dice games played with shells and “Snowsnake,” a game played with sticks in the snow. Gaming was used as entertainment but also to settle disputes between warring tribes, and was seen as connected to the spirit world and First Nations animist belief systems.

Gaming is of course not the only industry or practice that aboriginals claim as an indigenous right. Hunting and fishing are perhaps the best known, but cigarette manufacturing is now giving them a run for their money, since tobacco was also used by First Nations well before the arrival of Europeans. Gaming bears significant similarities to tobacco since the establishment of both these industries in First Nations communities has produced economic benefits but also increased social problems, not only on reserves but also in wider Canadian society.

These early chapters of the book thus also spur reflection on the larger question mentioned earlier, the need for a redefinition of the relationship between First Nations and both federal and provincial levels of government. If First Nations do have certain rights from a legal perspective, but the exercise of these rights has detrimental effects for both Native and non-Native populations, how do various levels of government address their responsibilities to protect their citizens? If First Nations have a right to independent and unregulated establishment of gaming and tobacco establishments, do they also bear a corollary responsibility for any harm caused both on and off the reserve by the existence of these establishments? How would such responsibility be exercised, and the failure to observe it sanctioned? Conversely, instead of seeking to regulate First Nations industries, should the rights enjoyed by aboriginal Canadians to engage in these activities apply to all Canadians—thereby putting all Canadians on the same level playing field?

While First Nations Gaming in Canada is an uneven read, it nevertheless provokes a great deal of thought on these questions, at a time when aboriginal issues are gaining greater prominence on the federal government’s policy agenda. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the book points to the urgent need to resolve, rather than endlessly ruminate on, the challenges facing Canada’s First Nations.