Alberta First Nations Lead Indian Gaming Expansion

By Clint Buehler

Over the past several years, Indian casinos in the United States have become a $15 to $20 billion source of revenue that, in addition to providing employment opportunities for their members, have enabled First Nations to amass the financial resources to diversify their investments and provide a broader and more secure capital base.

That situation may well become a steadily broadening reality in Canada, and Alberta may well be at the new vanguard of that movement.

Alberta’s first First Nations casino, the $182 million River Cree Casino and Resort on the Enoch reserve on the western outskirts of Edmonton opened late last year. Several more are under construction or in the final stages of approval, including the Tsuu T’ina on the southwestern outskirts of Calgary , Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation northwest of Edmonton, Cold Lake northeast of Edmonton, Stoney Nakoda west of Calgary and the Samson and Louis Bull/Montana First Nations at Hobbema.

The Samson Cree Nation at Hobbema is actively pursuing the opportunities Indian Gaming affords by acquiring a share—in partnership with the Rama Mnjikaning First Nation of Rama, Ontario and the Ktunaxa Nation of Cranbrook, B.C. (the original developers)—of the St. Eugene Resort at Kootenay, B.C.
Of course the Rama Casino on the Rama Reserve , the only First Nations-owned casino in Ontario, has been operating successfully since 1997. Profits are distributed among the 132 First Nations throughout Ontario. Ontario also has the Golden Eagle Charity Casino at Kenora and the Blue Heron Charity Casino at Port Parry.

In Manitoba there are three First Nations casinos: the Brokenhead Ojibway Nations’s South Beach Casino at Scanterbury, 30 minutes north of Winnipeg; the Anesesak Casino north pof The Pas owned by a consortium of six First Nations: Chemawawawin Cree Nation, Grand Rapids First Nation, Mosakahiken Cree Nation, Opaskawayak Cree Nation, Wuskwi Sipihk First Nation, Sapotiwayeyak Cree Nation and Swampy Cree Tribal Council, and the Roseau River First Nation Community Hall operated by the Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation.

But until now, Saskatchewan has been at the forefront of Indian
gaming in Canada.

On June 10, 1995, the FSIN First Nation Gaming Act became a reality and a management body was created to develop, conduct, manage and operate on-reserve casinos. That entity was the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority (SIGA). It was incorporated on January 11, 1996, as a non-profit organization.
Shortly after its creation, SIGA opened the doors to four First Nations casinos in Saskatchewan in 1996: Gold Eagle Casino, North Battleford; Northern Lights Casino, Prince Albert; Bear Claw Casino, White Bear First Nation, and Painted Hand Casino, Yorkton. At least two more Saskatchewan First Nations casinos are on the drawing board.

SIGA is responsible for the daily management and operation of accounting and auditing systems, the conduct of casino activities, the procurement and maintenance of gaming equipment and the casino’s game delivery, in addition to security and surveillance.
Profits generated from SIGA’s operations are distributed to the First Nations Trust (37.5%), which is distributed to Saskatchewan First Nations; the Provincial Government’s general revenue fund (37.5%) and Community Development Corporation (25%).

SIGA’s gaming operations are a revenue source for the Provincial Treasury, Saskatchewan’s First Nations and for Community Development Corporations situated in four casino locations. The CDC’s distribute this money to charitable and not-for-profit community organizations. SIGA is working to maximize profitability in a socially responsible manner, through transparency and accountability.

Alberta First Nations are positioned to challenge Saskatchewan’s dominance.

The Alberta situation highlights a number of issues.
Several Alberta gambling researchers have voiced concerns that , while they will likely still be profitable, casinos located on rural reserves with smaller populations to draw on may be more likely to depend on First Nations members for support and thus be a greater threat of creating gambling addiction and other social problems.

First Nations casinos with larger populations to draw on such as the River Cree Resort and Casino on Edmonton’s outskirts, the Tsuu T’ina Casino on Calgary’s outskirts (and even the Stoney Nakoda casino at Morley, on busy Highway 1 between Calgary and Banff) are projected to not only be more profitable, but to have less negative impact on the populations of those First Nations.

One proposed solution for rural First Nations is to buy casino sites in major centres and have that land designated as an urban reserve, giving First Nations employees of those casinos the same exemption from taxation that they have on any other reserve land. While that approach was proposed in Manitoba and soundly defeated several years ago, the continuing and expanding success of First Nations casinos in both the United States and Canada, and the burgeoning employment and financial benefits they are providing, may have reduced that opposition.

The potential benefits of these casinos is tempered by concerns that they may endanger First Nations members tempted by the ready access to gambling and alcohol, and may increase drug trafficking and crime on these reserves.
This concern has led to individual and organized objections to the development of First Nations casinos. In the case of objections to the Tsuu T’ina casino, that casino had to seek a court ruling to overcome those objections and proceed with the development.

Dr. Yale Belanger, with the Department of Naïve American Studies at the University of Lethbridge, considers these and other issues in his about-to-be published book, “Aboriginal Gaming in Canada: An Overview of the Issues Affecting an Industry in its Infancy”—partly funded through a research grant from the Alberta Gaming Research Institute.

According to the Institute’s newsletter, Belanger believes that the relevant academic literature is “missing an overview of the evolution of Aboriginal gaming in Canada and . . . [his book] could assist researchers interested in entering the field by providing them with a solid foundation of ideas, themes, trends and a review of the existing literature.”

The newsletter notes that it is obviously too early to tell whether Aboriginal casino gaming will be the economic panacea that ultimately generates the prosperity that in turn leads to, and perhaps reflects, stronger self-government.
Regardless of the outcome of individual casino projects, Belanger hopes that First Nations leaders in Canada will consider the reality that self-government means dealing with both the good and the bad.

“When looking to casino gaming for an economic boost,” Belanger says, “they may have to take into consideration issues like problem gambling that wouldn’t arise when constructing a large mall or entertainment centre, for instance.”
He cautions that a failed experience could further psychologically scar the very people who are seeking new economic initiatives to help their communities improve.