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The Globe and Mail

Charities want their fair share of gambling profits

Twenty-four cents of every dollar gambled at B.C. gaming venues goes to winnings.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Part of The Big Gamble, a series examining British Columbia's complicated relationship with casinos.

The government-run gambling industry in British Columbia provides about $1-billion a year to help pay for health and education initiatives and to fund 5,000 community groups.

But some say that, weighed against the negative social effects of gambling, the benefits simply aren't enough. And charitable groups are clamouring for a bigger share.

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During the 1980s and 1990s, community groups backed gambling expansion on the understanding that about a third of the profits would be funnelled into community ventures.

Now, with more than a decade of grant history behind it, an umbrella organization representing such groups says the government has not lived up to its commitment.

For several years, the British Columbia Association for Charitable Gaming has been calling on the province to honour a 1999 memorandum of agreement that called for 33 per cent of gambling profits to go to the charitable sector.

Charities currently get about 10 per cent, BCACG executive director Susan Marsden says.

Recently, the group has been writing to MLAs and candidates to ask where they stand on the subject, the first step in a planned push to make gambling policy an issue in the May election.

"We basically built the industry," Ms. Marsden says, referring to non-profits' long track record of running bingos and other gambling ventures. "We assisted this particular [Liberal] government in establishing community gaming facilities and helping them put a good face on gambling by saying the funds were going to go to charities.

"And then they turned around as they were still trying to get this support to approve more slots at the same time they were cutting these funds."

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The occasional flare-up over grant funding became a bonfire in 2009, when the government, citing challenging economic times, slashed gaming grants to about $112-million from nearly $160-million.

Some groups disappeared in the resulting chaos, while others, including daycare centres, seniors' programs and theatre groups, struggled to cope without funds that, in some cases, they had received for years.

After Christy Clark became Premier in 2011, she announced a $15-million boost to gambling grants. The next year, after a provincial review, she announced that the grants would be set at about $135-million for the next three years – still short of what they had been before the cuts.

Without legislation that sets out community groups' share of the gambling pot, charities and non-profits remain vulnerable to economic hardship or political whim, Ms. Marsden says.

By supporting the work of volunteers who are passionate about the needs of their communities – adult literacy programs, arts festivals or after-school sports for kids – gambling grants can help meet needs that government can't, she maintains.

"The whole range of things that make our society better are included," she says. "And the people working in them are getting either no money or less money than they would elsewhere. It's a huge benefit to society and the community – and it's a big, big bang for your buck."

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