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Sandy Garossino who is part of the coalition "Vancouver, Not Vegas" seen seen here in Vancouver Feb, 14, 2011with the new BC Place Stadium in the background where the new casino could go. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Sandy Garossino who is part of the coalition "Vancouver, Not Vegas" seen seen here in Vancouver Feb, 14, 2011with the new BC Place Stadium in the background where the new casino could go. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Anti-gambling crusade

Fewer people stake their bets on B.C.'s anti-casino movement Add to ...

When Isabel Minty went on a crusade to stop the first of the great gambling expansions in Vancouver 17 years ago, she had everyone on her side: the police, churches, neighbourhood groups.

It helped that there was a Non-Partisan Association city council that wasn't eager to go along with the NDP's gambling plans. So did the fact that the Vancouver Board of Trade was on the same page.

This time, says the 80-something Ms. Minty, it's a lot harder. People just aren't motivated or mad enough to make the kind of noise they did in 1994 and 1999 and 2004, protesting against the steady push for gambling, slot-machine or casino expansions.

Because casinos and gambling are so familiar now.

"They're so ubiquitous. And when the whole family goes, they don't think about what's really going on. They're oblivious to the real raison d'être."

Vancouver city council will start its first night of public hearings Thursday on a proposal to triple the size of the current Edgewater casino for a new complex planned next to BC Place.

But the first whiff of organized opposition only showed its head two weeks ago.

It's not that city residents particularly like casinos any more than they did before.

A poll released last week by Justason Market Intelligence showed that 52 per cent of Vancouver residents don't support the idea of the new casino; 39 per cent are strongly opposed.

That's little changed from 1994, when only 30 per cent of city residents polled said they were in favour the massive Steve Wynn casino then planned for the Burrard Inlet waterfront.

But the opposition now is strongest among older people. Sixty-six per cent of those over 65 are opposed to the planned casino, but the numbers drop with every decade below that.

And almost one in five has no opinion on the whole issue.

Ms. Minty and the new generation of anti-casino advocates who have sprung up in the last couple of weeks don't understand it.

To them, casinos are, as Ms. Minty puts it, "a filthy business" whose main purpose is to enable people in organized crime to launder their money.

Sandy Garossino, who is heading up the new group Vancouver Not Vegas, also painted a picture of casinos as a playpen for mobsters as she fired up a crowd of about 200 who came out to the group's first meeting last week at the Chinese Cultural Centre.

She also went on to describe Paragon Gaming, which is proposing to build two hotels with several lounges and restaurants, along with the casino, as a low-rent company that has primarily built tacky-looking casinos on native land in the United States and Alberta.

But while the "Vancouver deserves better than this" argument has started to generate some interest - the group's online petition now has slightly more than 1,000 signatures - it hasn't had the same momentum as previous waves.

Not just because everyone is used to casinos. But also because the waters are much more muddied.

First, there's the money. As B.C. Lottery Corporation CEO Michael Graydon stressed to Vancouver Board of Trade lunch guests last week, BCLC brings in more money for the provincial government than forestry and oil-and-gas revenues combined.

Casinos accounted for just over half of the $2.5-billion of the gross revenue from gambling in the province and three-quarters of the net income. And at the city information meeting held last week on the casino, the room was dominated by more than 100 casino employees whose blue T-shirts said bluntly: "Don't gamble with our jobs."

Then, there's the lack of political leadership. While the Vancouver city council of 1994 was happy to go up against the NDP government - an easy target, because the idea of using gambling money for provincial revenue was new - this council has mostly stayed out of the fray.

Third, there's the fact that gambling is everywhere. Social planner Mario Lee pointed out that, although gambling addiction is a problem, it's just as much of a problem in Toronto, where there is no gambling at all except for the Woodbine racetrack, as it is in Ontario cities that have casinos in the middle of town.

Finally, there's the fact that it's all tied up with a complicated tradeoff connected with BC Place - development next to BC Place is what is supposed to pay for the near-$600-million renovation - that has many residents confused.

"We were told by everyone we talked to that this was a done deal, there's no point, the Premier gets whatever he wants," said Sean Bickerton, one of the prime mobilizers of the recent opposition.

But Mr. Bickerton, along with Ms. Garossino and Ms. Minty, are hoping to pull off another miracle, by generating enough public noise over the next two weeks to at least force a rethink.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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