Mohawk Council and Canada Strike New Deal With Possible Online Gambling Implications

While the new MOU may help improve relations with the federal government, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke is still engaged in a legal fight with Ontario over iGaming.

Apr 19, 2024 • 16:52 ET • 4 min read
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A new agreement between the Quebec-based Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke and Ottawa could help patch up their relationship following the decriminalization of single-game sports betting and have broader implications for online gambling.

The Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke (MCK) and the Government of Canada announced this week they had signed a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) “outlining the relationship between the parties and the shared objective of exploring negotiations mandates to establish inter-governmental agreements between the parties in various sectors.”

While that sounds a bit technical, the press release trumpeting the new deal notes it “sets the stage for exploring renewed relationships on subject matters such as lands, environment, registration, gaming, justice, fiscal relations, consultation, economic development, and child and family services.”

The mention of “gaming” is significant because the MCK, whose community is just south of Montreal, was left disappointed by federal lawmakers passing Bill C-218 in 2021.

C-218, also known as the Safe and Regulated Sports Betting Act, made it legal for provinces to conduct and manage single-game wagering, unlocking numerous new betting markets for provincial lottery corporations and, in Ontario, private-sector sportsbook operators.

But the MCK warned the legislation, without changes that were never made, would put the council and its sizable gambling business in harm’s way, among other concerns.

The council noted in a submission to a parliamentary committee that the Mohawk “have engaged in gaming and sports betting since time immemorial,” and that they have an “Aboriginal right” under the Canadian Constitution to conduct and regulate gaming within and from their lands. 

The right to book

That right has been put to use by the council, which established a Kahnawà:ke Gaming Commission (KGC) in 1996 that has been licensing and regulating online and land-based gaming within and from Mohawk land ever since. The betting brand Sports Interaction is also operated outside of Ontario by Mohawk Online Ltd. (MOL), a company wholly owned by the MCK. 

“MCK takes no issue with the [Criminal Code] being amended to permit provinces to facilitate sports betting,” the council said in its submission. “MCK does, however, take issue with the ongoing failure to amend the Code to reflect and accommodate the Aboriginal right held by the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke.”

While the code was ultimately amended to allow provinces to offer single-game sports betting, the same right was not extended to Indigenous government organizations like the MCK in Bill C-218, which took effect in Aug. 2021. 

“Because the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke’s right is not reflected in the Code, third parties have at times been reluctant to enter into partnerships with MOL and the KGC,” the submission said. “It is anticipated that this type of hesitation will grow if the amendment to the Code passes as proposed in Bill C-218, since third parties are likely to view the explicit authorization of sports betting for the provinces in the Code as providing more legitimacy to provincial platforms than to sports betting conducted pursuant to the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke’s Indigenous right and jurisdiction.”

Wednesday’s announcement of the MOU (which is officially titled “the Memorandum of Understanding on the Kanien’kehá:ka of Kahnawà:ke and Canada Relations: a New Path Forward”) may help resolve some of the outstanding differences between the MCK and the federal government. 

"It provides us with the opportunity to tackle federal barriers we currently face, as well as the space to draft our own agreements to better meet the unique needs of our community,” Ohén:ton Í:iente ne Ratitsénhaienhs Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer said in the release. 

A provincial problem

However, while Wednesday’s news may help improve relations with the federal government, the MCK is still engaged in a legal fight with Ontario, which launched a competitive market for online sports betting in Ontario and internet casino gambling in 2022.

The MCK is challenging the legality of the Ontario government's iGaming scheme in court, arguing it is not the province conducting and managing that gambling, as required by the Criminal Code, but rather the army of private-sector operators that have been authorized to do business. A hearing on the MCK’s application was held in February and a judge’s decision on the matter is pending. 

In the meantime, the MCK may have an opportunity to push for changes at the federal level of government. One Canadian senator has proposed legislation that would enshrine some Indigenous rights to gaming in the Criminal Code, but only on that group's territory, which may not go far enough for the MCK and others.

“A New Path Forward requires equal partnership, respect and understanding, and above all, a shared desire to make the future better than the past,” Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Gary Anandasangaree said in Wednesday’s release. “Those are the commitments I am making today. More to do.”

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