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Federal sports gambling bill stalled in the Senate

The Senate Chamber of Parliament of Canada is seen in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

A proposed law that would open the door to Vegas-style sports gambling in Canada has run aground in the Senate, which has still not put it to a vote two years after the new law received all-party approval in the House of Commons.

It's a rare example of pushback from an unelected body believed never to have blocked a law supported by all parties. It's also the latest and most extreme example of a private member's bill that won the government's support and received little scrutiny in the House. Partly because of that lack of debate, several senators, including Conservatives, reacted angrily to the bill.

The law would give each province the power to allow single-game betting. Billions of dollars could be at stake. The Conservative leadership in the Senate hasn't put the new law to a vote because it doubts it has the simple majority needed to pass it.

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Sports luminaries such as Senator Jacques Demers, a former Montreal Canadiens coach, denounced the proposed law. Former Olympic skier Nancy Greene Raine expressed concern. Senator Frank Mahovlich, the former Maple Leafs great, said he thought today's hockey players earn enough money that they would not be bought off by gamblers. Paul Beeston, president of the Toronto Blue Jays, told a Senate committee that legalization of single-game betting would create more problem gamblers, and send the wrong message to children about the purposes of sports.

By contrast, a House committee spent just one brief session consulting experts – all of them from the gaming industry.

There was not a single recorded vote on the bill in the House; it passed on a voice vote.

The bill was sponsored in 2012 by New Democrat Joe Comartin, now deputy speaker, and supported by then-justice minister Rob Nicholson. Both have casinos that could host sports betting in their ridings – Mr. Comartin in Windsor, Ont., and Mr. Nicholson in Niagara Falls. The bill's speedy passage in the House raises questions about the level of review given to bills initiated by individual Members of Parliament, and whether the government is using private member's bills as a convenient way to pass laws.

Like other recent private member's bills, Bill C-290 received far less review than government bills. In one recent case, the wrong version of a parole bill sponsored by Conservative MP David Sweet was sent in June to the Senate. In another, an anti-gang bill sponsored by Conservative MP Parm Gill had mistakes in it but became law in June.

David Smith, a professor emeritus from the University of Saskatchewan, said the Commons' near-silence on the important issues at stake, and failure to hear from affected groups such as pro sports leagues, provoked the senators' opposition.

"It's led to a situation which is not desirable from anybody's perspective," he said in an interview. "Holding up the legislation for so long is certainly not desirable. Not hearing from all of the affected groups is undesirable. It seems to have been procedurally inept."

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The two-year delay has raised questions about the Senate's role in the democratic process. Conservative Senator Bob Runciman, who revived the bill in June, told senators they had been acting undemocratically. The bill has begun another journey toward a vote.

"This is a debate about whether the Senate should thwart the will of an overwhelming majority of those in the Other Place and whether we should deny the wishes of the provinces we were sent here to represent," he said in the Senate.

Mr. Nicholson came personally to lobby Conservative senators in a closed-door meeting in 2012. But because it was a private member's bill, those senators were not obliged to support it.

"Being number one in gambling is not my aspiration, not with what I know of this terrible addiction," Conservative Senator Vern White, a former Ottawa police chief, told the Senate.

Betting on single games is now deemed a crime. Provinces are allowed to offer parlay-style wagers on multiple games. Proponents of Bill C-290 say all that money now ends up offshore, or in the hands of organized crime, and should instead contribute to job creation and government revenues. The bill's critics argue that the legalization of single-game betting will create a wave of new addictions and put pressure on athletes to throw games.

Most provinces have said they want the right to decide. Such betting is illegal in most of the United States, but allowed in Nevada.

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Brian Masse, a New Democrat who speaks for the bill now that Mr. Comartin has become deputy Speaker, said there was a good reason the bill attracted so little study at committee: "There wasn't any interest, because it's a simple elimination of one sentence in the Criminal Code that allows provinces the right to change [the rules on single-game betting]. It doesn't make anything have to happen."

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