When Bill C-218 goes before the Senate’s standing committee on banking, trade, and commerce this week, former CFL commissioner Larry Smith will be among those giving it a closer look.

Last year, Saskatchewan Conservative MP Kevin Waugh introduced Bill C-218, a private member’s bill to modify the Criminal Code and legalize single-game sports betting in Canada. Last week, it was referred to the Senate Banking Committee, of which Smith is a member.

It’s scheduled to go before the committee Wednesday night.  Senators are likely to hold hearings and take in presentations by both those for and against legal wagering.

The committee will next write a report on C-218, which will be sent back to the Senate for a third discussion. Bill C-218 would be presented to Chief Justice of Canada Richard Wagner, who is filling the Governor General’s administration duties following Julie Payette’s resignation, for royal assent if passed in its current form.

This is the second time that legalized sports gambling has been front and center during Smith’s tenure as a senator. In 2015, NDP legislation passed with all-party support in the House of Commons, but never made it past the Senate before a federal election was called.

A year later, New Democrat MP Brian Masse introduced a private member’s bill in the House of Commons, but it was not passed.

Smith said during a telephone interview that “It’s fair to say there’s more momentum this time around as opposed to the time five or six years ago. I think there’s more of an openness within society as a whole, at least within North America and in some other countries in the world, to be able to recognize that this is a reality of the times we live in. One of the important issues is to have the proper rules in place to protect the integrity of the system.”

It’s currently legal in Canada to bet on parlays — multiple wagers linked together that usually must all be correct to win the bet.  If Bill C-218 passes, provinces and territories will be in charge of regulating and licensing websites, casinos, and other businesses that enable single-game wagering.

Trouble is, there are many government bills before the Senate.  If C-218 isn’t passed by the time both the Senate and the House leave for the summer later this month, it will result in the end of the bill, especially if Canadians head to the polls this fall.

Smith added that “Can it be passed? It can be put through. However, we are in a situation where there are other bills in the queue right now so it’s trying to manage the process with limited time. If there are amendments made when it comes to the Senate, then those amendments, if they pass they have to go back to the Commons and if the Commons is on recess, it falls through the cracks.”

Committee’s mandate

Smith said a Senate committee’s mandate is to review all legislation thoroughly.

Smith said that “Our job is to be like a quality-control vehicle in a regular business and so quality control means we have to analyze all legislation to the T and make sure what comes out in the finished product is the best possible product for Canadians. If we have to make amendments and changes and additions to it, we do that.”

Canada’s illegal betting business is estimated to be worth $14 billion, with offshore sites, U.S. casinos, and illegal bookmakers in this county. Most professional sports leagues have discovered that gambling can provide additional revenue while also increasing fan engagement.

Increased revenue streams are important for a gate-driven league like the CFL, which was forced to cancel games in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to The Canadian Press, the CFL lost between $60 and $80 million last year by staying off the field.

Because the CFL has never officially disclosed its 2020 financial loss, the source spoke on the condition of anonymity.
After being drafted first overall by Montreal out of Bishop’s club, Smith never missed a game over nine seasons as a running back with the club (1972-80). He served as commissioner from 1992 to 1997 and as president of the Alouettes twice (1997-2001, 2004-10), therefore he is familiar with the league’s business.

Smith said that “Let’s be blunt, the CFL does not have the same capacity from television revenues that other major leagues do. If the (sports betting numbers in Canada) that have been flashed around are truthful . . . there’d appear to be some potential. It would be important that funds received from this type of operation not only be put into the operation of the sports leagues but also community and minor sports development.”