The P.E.I. government is moving ahead through the Atlantic Lottery Corporation with preparations to launch an online casino and has no plans to consult the public about the issue.
That’s according to Darlene Compton, P.E.I.’s finance minister, who doubles as head of the P.E.I. Lotteries Commission, the gambling regulator of the province.
Compton said in an interview with CBC News that “One reason that we have an Atlantic Lottery Corporation is so that they can, in turn, do all the studies that are needed to ensure that the provinces are entering into any kind of agreement in a safe and regulated way. so the onus is on ALC to ensure that consultation is done, and it has been done for this product.”
But when CBC News spoke with Chris Keevill, CEO of Atlantic Lotto, in January, he said it was not for Atlantic Lotto to determine if the public could engage in a discussion regarding a new virtual casino operated by the government—that any such discussions will be under the provinces’ themselves.
In an email Monday, the lottery corporation said two different organizations had conducted “independent expert reviews” of its online casino, “which provided recommendations and best practices guiding the development of this product and related responsible gambling features. Shareholders were informed these reviews had been conducted.”
ALC said that those reviews “found no substantial evidence that the introduction of online casino gambling would have a measurable impact on vulnerable players, nor that problem gambling has become more prevalent in other Canadian jurisdictions where online casino games are already available.”
The new venture came after the corporation had tried and failed for a decade to get any of its shareholders — the four Atlantic provinces — to buy into the notion of launching an online casino.
Three days before Christmas, the P.E.I. cabinet agreed to a plan for an Island virtual casino page, with no formal announcement either, or any suggestion that the problem was back on the radar of the government.
But as opposition parties on P.E.I. call for a public discussion around the potential harms of launching an online casino — particularly at a time when people are spending so much more time at home due to COVID-19 restrictions — Compton said any further consultations “would be another layer” on top of what ALC has already done.
Compton said she believes more islanders have been driven by the pandemic to gamble online through offshore sites.
Residents of the four Atlantic provinces invest $100 million on those sites per year, according to ALC.
Compton said that “If people are doing it, we need to ensure that it’s regulated and that we can put all those protections in place to ensure Islanders are doing it in a safe way. As a province we can regulate what the wagers are. You have a way of controlling how much time you play, how much you spend.… None of those things are happening with offshore sites.”
But opposition MLAs have expressed concerns that the entrance into the online gambling market of a Crown corporation would allow more P.E.I. residents to play, and that may lead to more cases of family addiction and hardship already in the midst of an economic crisis.
Trish Altass, health critic for the Green Party said that “There are a lot of things that you can purchase online if you have a credit card. It doesn’t mean that the government should be promoting or profiting off of all of them.”
Altass said she agrees with ALC that it’s up to the province to launch a public discussion on the potential merits and risks of such a website before it launches.
She said that “It seems quite reckless to make a decision about opening up online gambling at a time when we know that many Islanders are struggling to get support for addictions already.”
The opposition Liberals have opposed the move, with MLA Heath MacDonald adding his name to the list of former P.E.I. finance ministers who, over the years, have been presented with this ALC idea, but have declined.
The two opposition parties used their combined majority of votes on the Health and Social Development province’s Standing of the province to call witnesses to testify about the website, including a gambling addiction specialist scheduled to appear on Friday.
Compton herself has been called to testify before the committee, but when or even whether it is going to take place is not clear.
Compton told CBC that she did not know when the virtual casino would be launched, but ALC suggested that in the first half of 2021, it would like to see that happen.
The P.E.I. government says Atlantic Lotto is told that the casino of P.E.I. will “require wager and deposit limits that are on the low end of what is permitted in Canada,” but that between ALC and the P.E.I. Lotteries Commission these problems are currently being worked out.
British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick also operate virtual casinos, according to the province.
Gamblers can bet up to $100 per spin of a virtual slot machine on the New Brunswick platform, 40 times higher than the limit on physical VLTs in that province, and up to $500 on a virtual blackjack hand.
But Compton said ALC told P.E.I. that the average wager is less than two dollars on the New Brunswick site.
Atlantic Lotto told the P.E.I. government that within the first year of operation it will clear $750,000 in profits after paying for expenses including a share of the development costs for the online site.