The Senate sponsor of a bill that would liberalize Canada’s sports-betting laws is hoping to pass the legislation this spring, in order to avoid having to wait what could be years to modernize the country’s gambling laws.
Bill C-218 would end a decades-long prohibition of betting on single-sporting events in Canada. Currently, Canada’s laws only allow wagers to be placed on sports in parlays, which is when multiple bets are linked to each other and must all be successful for someone to win the bet.
The bill would also give provinces and territories the responsibility of regulating and licensing websites and businesses that allow single-event sports betting.
Conservative Sen. David Wells is the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, having taken it over from Conservative MP Kevin Waugh.
Wells introduced Bill C-218 in the Senate on Friday, when senators were called in to pass back-to-work legislation for Port of Montreal workers. The Senate has sat infrequently since the pandemic began, but is scheduled to sit for seven of the next eight weeks before Parliament adjourns for the summer.
Bill C-218 could be read a second time as early as Tuesday.
How quickly the bill advances to committee stage in the Senate, where it’s most common for amendments to be suggested, depends on how many senators ask to speak about it. It also has to pass a vote in the chamber before reaching committee.
Bill C-218 passed nearly seamlessly in the House. After being reinstated in the fall after Parliament returned from prorogation, it was first voted on in February. It overwhelmingly passed its first vote, with only 15 MPs voting against it.
The House Justice committee met five times to study the bill, and removed a portion that would have overhauled Canada’s federally regulated parimutuel horse-racing betting system.
The bill then cleared the House after a shortened third-reading debate.
Wells said he isn’t assuming Bill C-218 will have as easy a time getting through the Senate.
“I give no weight to that at all,” Wells said. “You’ll never hear me say, ‘Well, here’s why you should support this bill: because it passed overwhelmingly in the House.’ We hear that all the time. My job is to look at it independently — and specifically, independently of the House.”
Wells says he intends to make sure his Senate colleagues understand the bill, and the ramifications if it’s passed or it isn’t.
Nor will he try to fast-track the bill through the committee process by seeking the Senate’s unanimous consent, which is sometimes done at the end of sitting sessions, or for urgent pieces of legislation, such as Bill C-29, the Port of Montreal back-to-work legislation.
It’s the Senate’s job to examine the bill “even more deeply” than the House did, Wells said, and to consider how it might affect people with gambling addictions, for instance.
Still, not a single senator has told Wells he or she is against it, he said.
It’s possible, however, that even if the bill is widely supported, efforts to pass it could be for naught if senators don’t act quickly enough. If it’s not passed during the seven sitting weeks this spring, Canada could end up in an election before senators have the chance to pick up where they left off in the fall. The federal parties have expressed an unwillingness to force an election before most Canadians are protected against COVID-19, but that barrier could be cleared by the fall if the country’s vaccine rollout stays on track.
“If we don’t pass it (this spring), then we probably won’t be addressing this until next year, or the year after,” Wells said. “And there’s opportunity being missed; not just the economic opportunity, but an opportunity to control and regulate gaming and gambling in Canada right now.”
Wells said he agreed to sponsor Bill C-218 because he believes it will boost Canada’s competitiveness in the gambling sector.
“It’s not that I’m highly engaged in the world of online betting or sports betting; I don’t bet,” Wells said. “But I do recognize the disadvantages that Canada has … with our competition around the world.”
Close to two dozen U.S. states have loosened restrictions of sports betting since a 2018 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a 1992 law that banned betting on sports in most states.
Sports betting is already a multibillion-dollar industry in Canada, but very little of it is legal, according to the Canadian Gaming Association. The organization estimates that $15 billion was bet on sports in 2020, but only three per cent ($450 million) was done legally.
“If a Canadian decides to bet on a match between the Leafs and the Canadiens, I want that money to remain in Canada,” Wells said.
A recent Deloitte report also estimated that, should single-event sports betting be legalized, the legal sports-gambling market could grow to nearly $28 billion in five years.
“When I look at our competition — the web, which is open and un-secure — (I’d prefer sports betting) be regulated within Canada and for the benefit of Canadians,” Wells said.
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