The Senate of Canada has entered the endgame for a bill that could legalize single-game sports betting in the country, but the chamber has thus far been unable to give its final approval to the legislation — and the clock is ticking.
Debate at the third and last reading stage for Bill C-218, the Safe and Regulated Sports Betting Act, was begun on Thursday by senators in the upper house of Canada’s bicameral parliament. The legislation was not, however, passed and read for its third and final time.
The private member’s bill needs that final legislative approval before it can receive Royal Assent and become law.
Newfoundland and Labrador Sen. David Wells, C-218’s sponsor in the Senate, rattled off the expected benefits of the bill during its third-reading debate on Thursday. Namely, that the legislation would make the single-game betting Canadians are already doing via offshore and illegal sportsbooks subject to Canadian regulation and taxation.
“Colleagues, it is time to bring single-event sports betting into the light of day,” Wells told his fellow senators.
However, a pair of proposed amendments, a break, and plenty of debate and questions about Bill C-218 and sports betting resulted in the Senate running out of time and adjourning until Monday before the final vote could be held.
The Senate has adjourned to Monday, June 21, 2021 at 2 p.m. ET— Senate of Canada (@SenateCA) June 18, 2021
C-218 was sponsored by Conservative MP Kevin Waugh in the elected House of Commons, which passed the bill back in April with broad political support.
The legislation would end the longstanding ban on single-game sports betting in Canada. That specific prohibition was inserted into Canada’s Criminal Code more than 30 years ago, and was intended to prevent match-fixing.
C-218 makes a relatively small tweak to the text of Canada’s Criminal Code, but it could have major effects on the country’s gambling sector, as sports betting is only legal at the moment in parlay form. If passed, the bill would make it legal for provinces and those they license to conduct and manage single-event sports betting on everything except horse racing, wagering for which would remain under federal scrutiny.
This government-regulated, single-game betting could redirect some of the billions of dollars in wagers that are estimated to be flowing to illegal sources back towards legal outlets, such as provincial lottery corporations and licensed operators from the private sector. It would also do so in the wake of a decision in 2018 by the Supreme Court of the United States that unleashed a wave of sports-betting legalization, including in states with casinos that border Canada and compete with the country's gaming facilities.
Yet the bill has prompted concerns and questions from some senators about match-fixing and Indigenous rights.
"When we bring single-event betting into Canada, we will have a problem with match-fixing," Ontario Sen. Vernon White said during Thursday’s debate. "Every other country does, so why would we be different?"
White, a former police chief, moved an amendment to C-218 on Thursday that would explicitly make match-fixing illegal, but it was ultimately shot down after 24 senators voted in favour and 38 voted against the proposed tweak. Ten senators abstained from voting.
The third-reading debate on C-218 began just after 5 p.m. ET on Thursday before the Senate suspended its business for an hour at 6 p.m. The chamber then adjourned at its regularly scheduled stopping time of 9 p.m. until next week, although not before another proposed amendment to C-218 was moved by Manitoba Sen. Mary Jane McCallum, which is scheduled to be dealt with when the Senate returns on Monday.
McCallum's amendment would tweak Canada's Criminal Code further to also permit an Indigenous council, government or other entity to conduct and manage a lottery "scheme" (which could include sports betting) under an agreement or arrangement with the federal government. Such a change to the bill has been sought by the Indigenous owners of Sports Interaction, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke.
"We have a chance here to embrace Kahnawà:ke and other Indigenous communities under the law," McCallum said on Thursday. "But if we do not include the proposed amendment, we are instead choosing to push them away, to force them to remain in a legal no man's land."
The trouble with tweaks
The proposed amendment, if it is accepted, would alter Bill C-218 and require it to go back to the House of Commons if the Senate then passed the changed version of the legislation. That added step before it can become law would take time, and both the Senate and the House of Commons are currently scheduled to recess next week for a summer break.
If the chambers adjourn for the summer before Bill C-218 is passed, it would leave the legislation and its progress vulnerable to being totally wiped out by an election. Moreover, the possibility of an election being called continues to grow as more and more Canadians are vaccinated against COVID-19.
Still, even the “critic” of C-218 in the Senate remains a supporter of the bill, which could bode well for its potential passage.
“The legislation, in fact, doesn't create a single-event sports betting market, it just legalizes it and regulates it,” Saskatchewan Sen. Brent Cotter said Thursday. “That market already exists in the grey and dark corners that trouble us.”