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Casino would kill what's left of Toronto the Good

Blackjack at the River Rock Casino in Richmond, B.C. June 11, 2009. The Great Canadian Gaming Company. John Lehmann/Globe and Mail

JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

The temptation to put a casino in Toronto is growing. The provincial government, facing a towering budget deficit, is tempted by the millions it would draw from a big gambling attraction in the country's largest city. The city government, with budget problems of its own, is enticed by the thought of extra money for transit and other needs.

Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has signalled the province might be open to the idea. So has Doug Ford, brother of Mayor Rob Ford. Deputy mayor Doug Holyday raised the notion this week.

Ontario Place is shutting down and looking for a new purpose. Putting a casino there is one of the ideas on the table. Don Drummond's report on Ontario's finances recommends closing one of the casinos in Niagara. That might leave the door open wider to a Toronto gambling palace.

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City councillors are already preparing for a fight on the issue. Downtown Councillor Adam Vaughan, of Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina, fired the first shot when he made a move on Tuesday to explicitly prohibit casinos in Toronto through zoning bylaws.

That irked a group of Scarborough councillors, who thought he was getting ahead of himself. They fired back, passing their own resolution to keep the door open to casinos. Toronto, they say, should at least consider the economic benefits.

Mr. Vaughan is in the right on this one. Toronto is blessed by the absence of a casino. You can bet on horseflesh or pull the slots at Woodbine, but for the full casino experience you must travel to Windsor or Niagara or Casino Rama.

Putting a gaudy gambling venue at Ontario Place would be the worst way to transform that choice waterfront location. Replacing a water park with roulette tables hardly classes up the place. Surely we can be more creative.

If people thought Doug Ford's idea of putting a Ferris wheel at the Port Lands was tacky, why would the city even consider a casino on the other side of the waterfront? No wonder a recent poll showed 50 per cent of Torontonians are against building a casino here, while 35 per cent are in favour.

Would a casino pull in more tourists? Certainly. It would also attract more local gamblers, who would spend their money on gaming instead of in Toronto cinemas, restaurants or theatres.

Then there is the whole issue of problem gambling. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health says 4.8 per cent of Ontario adults, or 449,000 people, have moderate or severe gambling problems. Another 860,000 people are considered "at risk" for problem gambling. Nearly 5 per cent of students engage in heavy gambling. CAMH says that, according to U.S. studies, one person in five with gambling problems will file for bankruptcy at some point.

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At least now, problem gamblers in Toronto have to travel to get the casino experience. Imagine how much more tempted they would be if they had a full casino right at home, reachable by a cab or transit ride.

Governments are addicted to the easy money from gambling. Instead of raising taxes and taking the heat, they can simply open a casino and watch the money pour in. Revenue from government-run gambling rose to $13.7-billion in 2009 from $2.7-billion in 1992, Statistics Canada says.

To assuage their guilt, governments set up programs to treat the very problem gamblers whose habit is enabled by government-sanctioned gambling. CAMH says that only a small proportion of problem gamblers ever use these programs.

It almost makes you hanker for the days when gambling was considered a vice, condemned from the pulpit and banned or limited by law. Today, governments happily promote it. Television ads urge us to buy that lottery ticket and win a fortune. Nothing is said about the torn families and ruined lives.

If there is any trace remaining of old Toronto the Good, the city will close its gates to casino gambling.

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