An attempt by the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) to topple Ontario’s multibillion-dollar online gaming scheme was rejected by an Ontario Superior Court judge Monday.

The ruling by justice Lisa Brownstone forces Kahnawake to choose between capitulating to Ontario’s demand for hefty levies – a violation of Kahnawake’s jurisdiction over gaming, the MCK has argued – or to be left out of Canada’s biggest betting market altogether.

“As far as having to pay a provincial government some type of fee, it’s out of the question,” said MCK chief Cody Diabo, who is tasked with the gaming file.

“It really puts us into a difficult situation for us to be operating. It’s unfortunate because the Kahnawake Gaming Commission is renowned globally, but we can’t even operate basically in our own backyard because of provisions in C-218,” he said, referring to the bill that legalized single-game sports betting in Canada when it was passed in 2021.

That law paved the way for provinces to build lucrative online gaming regimes that they would “conduct and manage.” This language became pivotal to the legal challenge, with the MCK arguing that simply regulating a market for private operators, as iGaming Ontario does, amounted to the province abdicating its mandate to conduct and manage sports betting.

However, following hearings this February on the challenge, which the MCK launched in late 2022, the Superior Court interpreted the requirement differently.

“I conclude that the province has retained key decision-making power over the iGaming scheme,” said Brownstone in the ruling, affirming Ontario as the “operating mind” of the scheme and finding that the province therefore conducts and manages it, not the private sector as the MCK contended.

“Honestly, I’m not surprised,” said Diabo of the decision. “This is one of the reasons we’re always hesitant to take things to the Canadian courts, because although it’s stated we have standing and we make a good argument, it’s still ‘but we still support the province.’”

The provincial and federal governments have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues from gaming site operators through iGaming Ontario since it launched in April 2022.

Diabo said that after nearly 30 years in the online gaming sphere, the ruling is a threat to Kahnawake’s participation not only in the Ontario market, but that of any province that follows suit with a similar scheme.

The threat is not only jurisdictional but also financial. The proceeds from Mohawk Online Limited, which operates online gaming sites under Kahnawake’s jurisdiction, go to the MCK. Since 2015, Mohawk Online has generated over $39 million for Kahnawake, MCK chief Ross Montour said in a press release last year.

Diabo cast the impasse on gaming as a failure of the Trudeau government, which he accused of lip service.

“They talk about reconciliation, they talk about wanting to stop cutting out Indigenous communities and economies, but they essentially open the door for stuff like this to happen,” he said.

Had the federal government ensured there were a carveout for Indigenous communities, the MCK would have never had to proceed in court, he added.

“My only hope is that they’ll do what’s right in Bill S-268 and vote in favour of the proposed changes we’ve suggested, which would essentially put us back in the field of operating online gaming from the territory,” he said.

Diabo and MCK grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer travelled to Ottawa earlier this month to meet with Alberta senator Scott Tannas, whose Bill S-268 ostensibly aims to recognize First Nations gaming rights by acknowledging powers on par with those of provinces.

However, since provinces can only operate within their own territories, the MCK has vigorously opposed the bill as an attack on Kahnawake’s jurisdiction. Council has been advocating for amendments to better protect the community’s gaming interests.

“That would essentially do what they should have done from the beginning and exempted or made a carveout for Indigenous communities,” said Diabo.

By Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on May 17, 2024 at 12:21

This item reprinted with permission from   The Eastern Door   Kahnawake, Quebec
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