Almost two-thirds of Canadians aged 15 and up reported gambling, with higher rates of gambling addiction occurring in Indigenous communities, according to a study released by Statistics Canada last week.
These numbers can be misleading, however, because they don't cover the generational trauma that fuels addictions among other mental illnesses, said Drew Lafond, the president of the Indigenous Bar Association.
"Any discussion regarding gaming and First Nations has to start with a historical perspective," Lafond said.
Statistics Canada said they used data from the 2018 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS), Gambling Rapid Response to do this study.
In terms of risk for moderate to severe gambling issues, Indigenous communities were three times more likely to experience that than non-Indigenous populations.
While growing up on Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Lafond said he felt the generational impacts of residential schools and colonial policies.
"I think we have well-documented reasons for the systemic factors that play into the on-reserve struggles and addictions that Indigenous people face," he said.
"Gaming has always been a part of First Nations' cultural, ceremonial and economic lifestyles and backgrounds … something that remains part and parcel of their cultural fabric."
He said that for many Indigenous community members, being able to operate casinos on-reserve is part of reclaiming their right to run a business in a culturally safe space.
Robert Williams, a research coordinator for the Alberta Gambling Research Institute,helped fund the Statistics Canada study, through his work with the Canadian Consortium for Gambling Research.
He said casino revenues have been flat over recent months, while problem gambling rates have declined over the decades.
His findings show electronic gaming machines (EGMs) are known for yielding higher chances of addiction.
Casinos on Indigenous reserves happen to have higher EGM densities compared with non-Indigenous spaces, according to Williams.
'The only addiction we fundraise from'
Andrée Busenius is an educator who has been leading presentations with Alberta's Problem Gambling Resource Network since 2003.
But before that, she was a member — learning how to recover from her own slot machine and video lottery terminal (VLT) addictions.
"For gambling addicts, it's never about the money," Busenius said.
"We lie and tell you that it is because we have to make sense of why we keep going back, but I promise you, there was never gonna be a big enough win or a high enough high."
After being in recovery for about four years in November 2007, Busenius relapsed and spent five weeks in a psychiatric ward for the suicide attempt that followed.
She said Alberta's gambling culture makes it hard for recovering addicts to stay on track.
"It's not about willpower and it's not about self control," Busenius said.
Now that she has been in recovery for more than 14 years, Busenius said she stays away from triggering environments. She leaves her cash at home and ignores games where taking risks is rewarded.
However, Busenius explained that it's not always possible when gambling ads come up while she's scrolling through her social media feed, or when she's just trying to enjoy her favourite TV shows.
"We tend to normalize gaming, meaning that gambling is the only addiction we fundraise from," she said.
"If you're spending money on an uncertain outcome, that's what gambling is."