Senate may be battleground for sports-betting bill

The fate of a bill that would allow single-event sports betting lies in the hands of members of the Senate after the bill passed the House of Commons last March.

"We'll actually have some reporters in the gallery, covering the debate," said Conservative senator Bob Runciman, who supports the bill. "It'll be unique."

Debate is to begin next Tuesday. Though Bill C-290 had support from the three major parties in the House, at least one Conservative MP and several Conservative senators have grave misgivings about the legislation, which would pave the way for Canadians to bet on the outcome of a hockey or football game, or even a figure-skating event.

Liberal Senator George Baker said Wednesday that it's been suggested Canada change its name to Cananevada if the bill passes the Senate.

Conservative Senator Mike Duffy said, "I don't see a public outcry that there are not enough places for people to lose their money."

Right now gamblers must wager on the results of at least two games or events in one bet — though some provinces have a minimum of three — meaning the odds of winning are stacked against them. However, illegal online betting on single sports events is hugely popular, with estimates of up to $10 billion a year going to gambling sites that are operated offshore and are often connected to organized crime.

Late last year, NDP MP Joe Comartin sponsored the private member's bill, which would sanction single event betting, a type of gambling that is banned in all but four U.S. states. Comartin is from Windsor, which has the most gambling facilities in Ontario. The bill has the backing of Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, who is from Niagara Falls, known for its lavish casino and casino resort.

To say Bill C-290 passed quickly through the House of Commons is an understatement. The Commons committee that studied it held one two-hour session and heard from one witness, a representative from the gaming industry.

It was an "omnishambles," Baker said.

"This thing was rushed through the House of Commons at 5 p.m. on a Friday night with no debate," Duffy said. "The Senate's constitutional role is one of sober second thought, and I think a lot of people are having second thoughts."

Conservative MP Michael Chong said he didn't get a chance to vote on the bill because a deal between the parties' House leaders meant he wasn't given notice that the bill was speeding through the Commons without a standing vote, even though he had let his opposition to the legislation be known. Chong said antipathy to the bill among MPs and senators is "significant."

Chong, who once worked for the National Hockey League Players' Association and who was a minister for sport, thinks the bill will hurt children, low-income groups and people with addictive personalities. Plus, it will ruin the integrity of sport, he said.

"You just have to look at Europe and the U.K., where single-game betting has been legalized. Sport is rife with fraud and betting scandals."

Chong pointed out that the members of the Pakistani cricket team have been arrested for throwing a game in England, and that FIFA, the international soccer association, has complained its players have been approached by organized crime.

Conservative Senator Norm Doyle said Tuesday that "quite a number of people are against it." Doyle added that "if you have single-sport betting, every call a referee makes is in doubt."

Baker said that one Senate witness worried that if the bill becomes law, and a figure-skater misses a triple jump, there will be an investigation to see whether any of the skater's relatives placed a bet on the event.

Conservative Senator Jacques Demers, a former NHL coach, said, "On the gambling bill, it's one of the things that's been the most difficult for me. I spent 30 years in hockey, where the straight line of betting was just simply a no-no."

Demers said he was very torn about the bill. "It's a very, very difficult situation. I'm not skating with you. I'm just telling you right now I could change my mind, but right now this 290-C is something that I'm not too sure about."

Asked whether he felt pressured to support the bill, Duffy answered, "Why should I feel pressured? We're independent of the House of Commons. We exercise our own judgment."

Runciman, who is sponsoring the bill for the Conservatives in the Senate, said he expects debate on the bill will last for weeks and there won't be a vote until close to the end of the session in December. He added that it will be a free vote since this is a private member's bill.

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