The P.E.I. government is moving forward with preparations to launch an online casino through the Atlantic Lottery Corporation and has no plans to consult the public around the issue.
That's according to P.E.I.'s Finance Minister Darlene Compton, who doubles as the head of the P.E.I. Lotteries Commission, the province's gambling regulator.
"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," Compton said in an interview with CBC News.
"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 in January with Atlantic Lotto CEO Chris Keevill, he said it's not for Atlantic Lotto to decide whether the public should be engaged in a discussion around a new government-run virtual casino — that any such discussions would be within the purview of 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 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."
N.B. site went live in August
Atlantic Lotto quietly launched a virtual casino for New Brunswick in August of 2020, without issuing a media release saying the site had gone online.
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.
The P.E.I. cabinet okayed a plan for an Island virtual casino page three days before Christmas, with no formal announcement either, or any indication the issue was back on government's radar.
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.
Province can make gambling safer: Compton
Compton said she believes the pandemic has driven more Islanders to gamble online through offshore sites. According to ALC, residents of the four Atlantic provinces spend $100 million on those sites each year.
"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," Compton said.
"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 entry of a Crown corporation into the online gambling market will encourage more P.E.I. residents to play, and that could lead to more cases of addiction and hardship among families already in the midst of an economic crisis.
Reckless decision, say Greens
"There are a lot of things that you can purchase online if you have a credit card," said Trish Altass, health critic for the Green Party. "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.
"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," she said.
The opposition Liberals have also come out against the move, with MLA Heath MacDonald adding his name to the list of former P.E.I. finance ministers who were presented with this idea from ALC over the years, but declined.
The two opposition parties used their combined majority of votes on the province's Standing Committee on Health and Social Development to call witnesses to talk about the website, including an expert on gambling addictions scheduled to appear Friday.
Compton herself has been called to appear before the committee but it's not clear when or even whether that will take place.
P.E.I asks for bet limits 'on the low end'
Compton told CBC she didn't know when the virtual casino might launch, but ALC has indicated it would like to see that happen in the first half of 2021.
The P.E.I. government says it's advised Atlantic Lotto that P.E.I.'s casino would "require wager and deposit limits that are on the low end of what is permitted in Canada," but that these issues are currently being worked out between ALC and the P.E.I. Lotteries Commission.
According to the province, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick already operate virtual casinos.
On the New Brunswick site, gamblers are able to bet up to $100 per spin of a virtual slot machine — 40 times higher than the limit on physical VLTs in that province — and up to $500 on a virtual hand of blackjack.
But Compton said ALC has told P.E.I. the average wager on New Brunswick's site is less than two dollars.
Atlantic Lotto has told the P.E.I. government it could clear $750,000 in profits, after paying for expenses including a share of the development costs for the online site, during the first year of operation.
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