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Prospect of huge new casino worries councillors

Edgewater Casino entrance seen here August 29, 2006 in Vancouver.

Rafal Gerszak/ The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak/ The Globe and Mail

Vancouver city councillors of all stripes say they are worried about whether the province has strong enough measures in place to prevent money laundering at casinos, as they prepare for a public hearing on whether to allow a massive new facility in the downtown core.

"I'm not satisfied B.C. has the minimum standards in place to protect everyone," said Vision Councillor Geoff Meggs. Council is set to vote Tuesday on holding a public hearing that could lead to approval of a 1,500-slot, 150-table casino at the edge of BC Place.

Approval would result in a facility three times bigger than the existing Edgewater Casino. The Edgewater has operated nearby for years and would run the new casino, which would be the biggest in Western Canada. "The conditions are significantly tougher elsewhere in Canada, even in Nevada," Mr. Meggs said.

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Non-Partisan Association Councillor Suzanne Anton said the question of whether local casinos have proper security is one of several "important questions" she wants answered during the public hearing. And COPE Councillor Ellen Woodsworth is calling for a review of public gaming in connection with the casino plans and concerns about money laundering.

B.C.'s lax standards for gambling hit the headlines earlier this month, when it was reported that Canada's federal money-laundering watchdog fined the B.C. Lottery Corporation $670,000 for its poor oversight of cash transactions.

The B.C. RCMP's Integrated Proceeds of Crime section also criticized the province's casinos for routinely failing to flag large cash transactions as suspicious. In one case, a man brought $1.2-million in chips to the Starlight Casino and asked for it to be converted into cash and that was not labelled a suspicious transaction.

Solicitor-General Rich Coleman has promised to look at other jurisdictions and boost B.C.'s security with new rules if necessary.

But that's all anyone knows about possible changes.

Mr. Meggs said B.C.'s casinos have been reasonably free of the petty crime that some people thought they would attract, but the money-laundering issue could be worrying for the general public.

"No one wants to go to a place where that is going on," he said.

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Money laundering is the latest of the thorny issues Vancouver has had over casinos in the past 20 years.

In the mid-1990s, the city's then-governing NPA headed up fierce opposition to the idea of expanding the relatively small casino operations. They were joined by religious and community groups that were equally opposed, either because of fears about problem gambling, the morality of gambling or crime.

After the B.C. Liberals went ahead with a huge expansion after being elected in 2001, Vancouver City Council struggled again over the casino issue as new slots were approved for Hastings Racetrack and Edgewater. COPE councillors at the time split over the issue, as did their NPA counterparts.

These days, councillors say they are hearing almost no opposition to casinos, except from community and arts groups who say they should be getting a larger share of the profits. The groups supported expansion 10 years ago on the promise they would get a certain percentage, but that share has steadily dropped.

Vancouver's councillors say they also want to hear from the province about whether it plans to give those groups a bigger piece of the pie.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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