Peter Stock
The Interim

After several high-profile suicides and bankruptcies involving gambling addicts who had been using provincially licensed video lottery terminals, or VLTs, Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm has ordered a quarter of the province’s 3,200 machines removed from bars and restaurants.

The move will likely cost the province a substantial portion of the $170 million it annually rakes in from the machines, yet a majority of Nova Scotians told the province’s gambling commission in a recent survey they would be willing to pay higher taxes to make up for the budget shortfall.

The public backlash in Nova Scotia against widespread casino-style gambling has been offered leadership by a broad coalition of church leaders, who have been promising to make gambling an election issue. Mr. Hamm’s PC government has been taking the Christian community’s concerns seriously since a decisive 55-45 referendum victory last October, in which Sunday shopping continued to be prohibited in the Maritime province.

The move may be the first serious indication that Canadians, having seen the pernicious effects that thrill-inducing VLTs, slot machines and other forms of casino-style gambling can have on addicts, their families and communities, are beginning to doubt the wisdom of legalizing such forms of “entertainment.” Casino-style gambling, as distinct from lotteries that do not offer the possibility of an instant payoff, was decriminalized by the “progressive” government of Brian Mulroney in 1985.

Such gambling has claimed its share of victims in the 20 years since legalization. Canada Family Action Coalition executive director Brian Rushfeldt tells The Interim gambling is problematic for individuals and families in two key ways. “First, there is the amount of money spent. People have lost their homes and farms. They’re even selling their furniture to pay their debts. It drains families and is financially very destructive.

“But, there is also the amount of time spent. When a husband or wife spends hours on end at the gambling hall, that’s time not spent with their spouse or children. They are not at home to eat meals or go to ball games. There are no relationships to be built in the gambling hall,” he says.

Rushfeldt spent many years working as an addictions counsellor. He says, “My training and experience tell me that those with addictive tendencies to one vice, such as drinking, have an increased likelihood of developing an addiction in other areas, such as gambling.”

For many gambling addicts, that could ultimately lead to suicide. The Canadian Safety Council believes that at least 200 suicides a year can be directly attributed to gambling addiction. Rushfeldt says that is because many addicts “feel trapped and depressed. They feel the only way out is to kill themselves.”

The issue of gambling addiction has deeply affected a large-enough cross-section of Canadian society after two decades that it even seems to have transcended ideological considerations. In recent weeks, the Law Commission of Canada, a traditionally left-wing, libertine government agency, has called on the federal government to hold a public inquiry into the gambling industry, with a view towards tightening up the Criminal Code and restricting the spread of gambling in Canada.

The backlash against casino-style gambling had a couple of false starts in past years. In 1998, a number of Alberta municipalities held referendums to determine whether VLTs could remain in local bars and restaurants and most narrowly voted to keep the machines. And, in 2001, New Brunswick held a province-wide vote and narrowly voted to keep VLTs there, by a 53 per cent margin.

Rushfeldt says that at the time of the 1998 local referendums, “Albertans didn’t see the risks and dangers and supported the notion of letting people do as they chose. I believe now that we’re more informed and more concerned, because we’ve seen the consequences. If another vote were held, I think we’d see an increase in the number opposed to the machines.”

Yet, with over $6 billion in net profits flowing to provincial treasuries across Canada, many governments are reticent to give up the lucrative source of revenue. And, with nearly 45,000 people now directly employed in the gambling industry, casinos in some historically disadvantaged locations such as Indian reserves, and certain charities dependent on “charity” casinos for revenue, there is a substantial lobby in favour of maintaining the status quo.