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Is gambling a crime? Well, yes and no. When Canada's Criminal Code was adopted in 1892, gambling was a sin to be fought with every fibre of the country's being. Today, although injunctions against three-card monte and keeping a common gaming house are still entrenched in the code, the law is designed more to delegate the pursuit of lotteries, casinos and video lottery terminals to the provinces than to warn people away from the activity on pain of fine or imprisonment. How did Canada reach this point?

The Law Commission of Canada, which advises the government on the country's laws, assigned criminology instructor Colin Campbell, sociology professor Timothy Harnagel and gambling researcher Garry Smith to find out. The three submitted their report this month. It makes instructive reading.

Parliament's gambling amendments to the Criminal Code after 1892 were generally scattershot -- an exemption in 1901 for charitable raffles at bazaars, in 1910 for betting at horse races and in 1925 for wheels of fortune at agricultural fairs -- until 1969. That's the year Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government allowed federal and provincial governments to hold lotteries and gave the provinces greater leeway to license charitable gambling. Quebec promptly set up Crown corporations to supervise horse racing and conduct provincial lotteries, and the other provinces followed. The federal government started its own 1973 lottery to help pay for the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and in 1976 created a federal lottery corporation called Loto-Canada. An unholy battle broke out between the provinces and Ottawa for the public's lottery dollar, until Brian Mulroney's Conservative government agreed in 1985 to get rid of Loto-Canada if the provinces paid a kill fee of $100-million and agreed to a further kickback of $24-million a year, adjusted to inflation (in 2003, the payment was $60-million).

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That was just the start. The same agreement allowed the provinces to operate "lottery schemes" (a phrase first used in 1906) with computers, video devices and slot machines. Do VLTs come even close to qualifying as a "lottery scheme"? In 2002-03, the average Canadian adult spent $481 on gambling. The average adult in Alberta, the gambling-friendliest province, spent $641. Revenues from government-operated gambling in Canada were more than $12-billion.

All this happened with little public debate. The authors say that since the last public review of the Criminal Code's gambling section was in 1954-55, when a Commons-Senate committee looked at lotteries, it is time for a new one. They have called for a royal commission that would have the power of subpoena and would spend two years assessing the country's gambling policies.

Please, no. Even if this country weren't already staggering under the weight of inquiries and commissions, there would seem little point in creating an expensive road show to tell Canadians what they already know. And what they know is this.

First, the provinces have fought to change public attitudes toward gambling. In marketing terms, they have repositioned the brand. It's no longer shady, they say; it's fun. The General Council of the United Church of Canada had it right in a 1998 policy paper: "Gambling was once dominated by criminal organizations, controlled by government and, in the United States, quarantined in Nevada. Today it is promoted by government as another leisure activity and a positive contribution to 'civil society' and community development."

Why does the Criminal Code even bother to carry laws against gambling, the report to the Law Commission asks, since its main effect is to make it legal for the provinces to do as they will. Given that "Canadian criminal law in regard to gambling has been used principally to consolidate and legitimize a provincial government 'expansionist monopoly,' " is this "an appropriate use of criminal law"? The report quotes studies from the United States, Britain and Australia that say widespread legal gambling opportunities have "led to relaxed monitoring of illegal gambling by police officials and lenient treatment by the courts for those charged with illegal gambling offences." The report also suggests, with supporting evidence, that the provinces have exceeded even the broad authority the Criminal Code has given them.

The second evident fact is that the provinces are addicted to gambling revenue. They aren't prepared to give up the money they rake in, even though gambling is a regressive tax (disproportionately hurting the poor) and a cruel and socially damaging one (disproportionately profiting from compulsive gamblers). What the provinces need, and what no royal commission can give them, is the will to stop lending the imprimatur of governments to gambling.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty made the lack of resolve explicit last November. On being told that 36 per cent of the revenue in Ontario's casinos came from the 5 per cent of gamblers with addictions, he replied, "There's no doubt about it -- we have come to rely on gambling revenue. Perhaps in a better world we wouldn't, but the fact of the matter is it's here, it's here to stay."

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There may be room here for the federal government to change the Criminal Code, if the language of its 1985 agreement with the provinces hasn't entirely sealed off the opportunity to do so. But the provinces themselves should do more to address the conflict between their roles as regulators and beneficiaries.

For a start, they should get out of the most soul-destroying aspect of the business -- the electronic gambling machines, particularly those outside casinos, that seduce new customers into throwing away their money and milk the more addicted customers dry. Beyond that, they should end the marketing campaigns for lotteries and casinos that tell people they are missing out on life if they don't bet their money at the tables or on lotteries where the odds are impossibly stacked against them. And beyond imposing a moratorium on new gambling, they should wean themselves from existing operations. If governments aren't prepared to work toward "a better world," who is?

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