Saskatchewan senator believes "better than a 50-50 chance" Bill C-218 will pass

Brent Cotter has come around on the idea of legalized gambling.

The independent senator from Saskatchewan admits he initially wasn't a fan of the concept. But that was before seeing first-hand in his home province how regulations and responsible management of casinos can help moderate the risks of gambling addiction.

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And with most pro sports organizations supporting the legalization of single-game sports wagering, Cotter feels senators should consider that in regards to the decision on Bill C-218. The private member's bill introduced last year by Saskatchewan Conservative MP Kevin Waugh to amend the Criminal Code and legalize single-game sports betting in Canada was referred to committee Tuesday night in the Senate.

"If professional sports leagues see value and safety in the legalization of this kind of betting, it's hard for us not to be supportive," said Cotter, the former dean of the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan. "They've got more at stake than we senators do on this.

"If they're comfortable they're not damaging their leagues and the integrity of their sports, then I think we should take that as a pretty meaningful statement that we can move this out of the criminal law and into a good regulatory environment that the provinces have done pretty well on with casinos. I'm confident with responsible gaming leadership they can do the same with sports betting."

The Senate standing committee on banking, trade and commerce will now write a report on Bill C-218, although that process isn't expected to begin until sometime next week. Upon completion, the report will go back to Senate, where the bill would be debated a third time.

If passed in its current form, Bill C-218 would go before Chief Justice of Canada Richard Wagner — who is filling the administration duties for the Governor General role following Julie Payette's resignation — for royal assent.

But there are several government bills before the Senate and those traditionally get more attention than private members bills. If Bill C-218 isn't passed by the time both the Senate and House leave for the summer later next month, it could result in the end of the bill if Canadians head to the polls this fall.

When an election is called, any bill that hasn't been passed becomes null and void, which was the fate of a previous sports gambling bill in 2015. Following the election, the bill would have to be rewritten and go through the entire process all over again.

But Cotter, who spoke about Bill C-218 on Tuesday night, believes there's "better than a 50-50 chance" the legislation will be passed. That's up from a 50-50 prediction Waugh gave The Canadian Press late last week.

"The banking committee of the Senate is an honourable committee, it does its work in a timely way," Cotter said. "If it can look at the bill, meet with witnesses and report back in a reasonably expeditious way, there is time within the Senate agenda for it to be finalized, assuming it's sufficiently supported, and I think it would be.

"There is a fair amount of other business that the Senate needs to concern itself with . . . but the window is available if we can move in a timely and responsible way, I think."

Currently in Canada, it's legal to bet on parlays, which are multiple wagers linked together that usually must all be correct for someone to win the bet. The successful passing of Bill C-218 would make provinces and territories responsible for regulating and licensing websites, casinos and other businesses that would allow single-game wagers.

And that's important given estimates offshore sites, U.S. casinos and illegal bookmakers constitute a $14-billion industry in Canada.

"Organized crime, which is in this now, does not have a responsible gaming program and probably doesn't want one and that's not good for folks who are vulnerable," Cotter said. "This won't solve the problem in that respect, it won't make gambling go away but it will improve things and moderate those risks, I think.

"So that's how I resolved it in my own mind and I find it to be a pretty compelling response given what I saw with the professionalism of the casinos being run in Saskatchewan. You can't eliminate the fact that someone won't get addicted and won't make some bad choices but as I say I think that's happening and will happen less in the future with this legislation and regulation."

Prior to his academic career, Cotter served as Saskatchewan's Deputy Minister of Justice and Deputy Attorney General. He also was Saskatchewan’s Deputy Minister of Intergovernmental and Aboriginal Affairs and helped develop a government-wide program of services for First Nations and Métis peoples.

Cotter was formerly the chair of Saskatchewan’s Public Complaints Commission and is a founding member of the Canadian Association for Legal Ethics. Cotter also sits on various board and was also one of the original professors and writers of legal ethics in Canada and is a member of the Law Society of Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society.

On Jan. 31, 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau nominated Cotter to fill a vacant Senate seat for Saskatchewan.

Like Waugh, Cotter feels the passing of Bill C-218 would be good news for the CFL because it would provide the gate-driven, nine-team circuit another revenue stream. The league didn't play in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which a source has told The Canadian Press resulted in it losing between $60-to-$80 million.

The source spoke on the condition of anonymity because the CFL has never publicly stated its 2020 losses. The league has tentatively scheduled starting a 14-game season Aug. 5.

"I love the Canadian Football League (but) it does not have the enormous television revenues that the other sports leagues have," Cotter said. "It tends to rely much more on gate receipts and fan interest and I think this would help although I don't know the dollars and the way it would be of revenue benefit.

"It's actually a small, constructive federal-provincial relationship initiative to transfer the responsibility here to the provinces but also enable them to access the revenue flows in taxes, taxes on the employees who'll get better jobs."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2021.

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