Until quite recently, Canadian governments treated gambling as a vice, something to be firmly limited and sternly discouraged for the protection of public morals. Today, hooked on the money they reap from what they blandly describe as "gaming," they flog lottery tickets and casino chips with the sleazy enthusiasm of fairground carnies. Step right up, folks. Bet on that pony. Feed that slot machine. You could be a big winner! Not content with the mere $2-billion or so that they pluck annually from the pockets of luckless bettors and place in the outstretched palm of the provincial government, Ontario's gambling authorities are trying to up their game. With the aim of raising another $900-million a year by 2021, they are handing operations over to private companies more adept at persuading people to overlook the ridiculous odds and gamble their hearts out.
The big prize in this expansion project is Greater Toronto. The region has one outlying, rural casino and two horse-racing tracks with slot machines. In the official view, that means it is "underserved," which would be a reasonable way of putting it if the region had too few hospitals or schools, but sounds faintly absurd when casinos are involved. The plan is to beef up the old gambling sites – including Woodbine, near Pearson airport – and add a fourth.
That would require local governments to give their approval. The temptation to do so is strong. Cities stand to get a share of the take, not to mention the spin-off money, and who doesn't like easy money? But the right answer to the idea is a resounding no.
That is what Toronto city council said in 2013. Though then-mayor Rob Ford and his brother, Doug, were in favour, councillors voted overwhelmingly to oppose a downtown casino. They also voted narrowly to oppose an expansion at Woodbine.
The reasons to oppose a casino build-out are the same now as they were then. First, it would be a threat to public health. Most gamblers play responsibly, but the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. concedes on its website that "approximately 3.4 per cent of adult Ontarians have a severe or moderate gambling problem." Expanding the number and size of Toronto-area gambling sites means more temptation for problem gamblers, even with all the safeguards that modern casinos include and all the treatment the health system provides.
A report from Toronto's medical officer of health in 2013 found that "increases in problem gambling are the most important health impacts of a new casino in Toronto." Among the effects of problem gambling, it said, can be domestic assault, child abuse and divorce.
Second, Toronto doesn't need casinos to be a success. Many cities that have allowed gambling sites to open within their borders did it because they were hard up. They saw a casino as a way of reviving a depressed economy or luring big-spending tourists to a beat-up part of town. Toronto is fortunate to be in a much better position. With thickets of construction cranes crowding its skyline, it clearly doesn't need to jump-start development. Most of its suburban communities, too, are seeing lots of growth and investment. Why would they resort to a desperation move such as opening a casino?
It isn't to do Toronto a favour that officials are pushing for more gambling joints, in any case. The aim is to fill government coffers. Over the past decade, the provincial debt has doubled to more than $300-billion under Ontario's spendthrift Liberal government, which finally announced a balanced budget this spring after years of deficits.
Raising taxes or cutting spending is unpalatable to any government, especially one that is facing an election in less than a year. Far easier to push gambling instead. If casinos are handy for depressed cities, they are irresistible for provinces that lack the discipline or the courage to live within their means. Many Canadian governments are short of those qualities, which is why government-sanctioned gambling has spread like dog-strangling vine across the land.
Toronto, so far, has managed to keep back the advance. It should hold firm. Casinos are for losers.