It is the most frequently asked question by gamblers in Canada: is online gambling legal? And it’s not only Canada either, as this question is on the lips and the search bars of countless gamblers all over the world. It is a straightforward question and it should illicit a straightforward answer, but that’s rarely the case.
The truth is, online gambling has confused lawmakers and made things very difficult for them. In countries where offline gambling is legal in all of its forms, it’s fairly straightforward. Such is the case with the UK, where an 18 year old can walk down the street, buy a lottery ticket, place a bet on a sports game and then drop into a casino. But in countries where offline gambling is partially or completed restricted, it is a little less straightforward and it’s in this confusing purgatory that Canadians find themselves.
So, are online casinos legal in Canada, can you gamble there without fear of prosecution and if so, does the same apply to all forms of gambling?
Online Gambling Laws in Layman’s Terms
There is no simple way to describe the Canadian gambling laws because they seem to contradict themselves and they are always changing. But if you look at how these laws are applied in practice and not theory then it becomes a little clearer.
For instance, technically, players can only gamble in Canadian casinos and only if those casinos are licensed. For this to be the case, the casino either needs to be operated by the provincial government, which it almost never is, or by the Kahnawake Gaming Commission, who are exempt due to their status as a native reserve.
But that overlooks the elephant in the room, because if this were the case then surely the world’s biggest gambling sites, from Royal Vegas to PokerStars, wouldn’t be allowed to operate in Canada. Right?
But what few people actually realize is that these sites also have a license from the Kahnawake Gaming Commission. It is not their main regulator, and most of these sites are actually regulated by the Malta Gaming Authority, but they still have a license and this allows them to offer the services they offer.
Casino Gambling in Canada
Casinos, both online and offline, are big business in Canada. And we’re not just saying that because we’re biased towards Canada, we really mean it. The vast majority of online casinos do significant business in Canada, and some of the world’s biggest sites rely on Canadian gamblers more than European ones.
It’s hard to imagine considering the size of Canada when compared to the size of Europe, but culture plays a bigger role. The population of Australia is much smaller, for instance, yet they gamble more than anyone else in the world and some casinos spend a lot of money targeting them as a result.
Gambling is a big part of Canadian culture, from the many casinos that litter the landscape to the significant number of gambling sites that operate under the banner of the Kahnawake Gaming Commission.
The US helps somewhat with this. Many professional gamblers and high-rollers flock to Canada simply to have more freedom when it comes to online gambling. They leave a country where their hobbies and sometimes their careers are tightly restricted to a one where they have free rein to do as they please, and they go crazy.
Take poker as an example. In 2011 all major poker sites stopped allowing US players to play. Many of those players were making a living from it and others relied on it heavily, so as soon as the ban came into place they uprooted themselves and the ones who didn’t move to Vegas came north of the border into Canada.
So, while the population of Canada is only 36 million, it’s bolstered every year by millions of Americans and has a larger share of high-rollers, professional gamblers and serious risk takers than other gambling regions do.
Is Any Form of Gambling Legal?
Lotteries are the most popular way to gamble in Canada. Just take a look at these stats:
- Canadian lotteries generate more than $8 billion a year in revenue.
- Ontarians play more lotteries than anyone else, three times more than players from BC.
- 43% of Ontarians (about 4.9 million) play the lottery regularly.
- 17% of Ontarians play every week.
These games were legalized in 1969, with many being launched in the early 1970s to pay for the 1976 Summer Olympics. They bring in a lot of money in provincial taxes and are considered low risk for gambling addiction. Casinos also bring in a lot of tax money, although there is much greater risk with regards to gambling addiction.
Both of these are widespread, very common and, for the most part, very legal. But it is a different story with sports betting.
Is Sports Betting Legal in Canada?
Sports betting has always been tightly controlled in North America, and it’s an issue that is pretty much confined to this continent. If you tell a European who knows little of Canadian culture that sports betting is illegal but casino gambling is not they’ll call you mad. It makes no sense, because to the rest of the world sports betting is harmless and low-risk.
That’s because, contrary to what the government says, it’s not about problem gambling. It’s about tax, and sports betting generates much less in this department than casinos do. The good news is that it is available in many parts of Canada, the bad news is that the law is not very clear on it and most availability comes from offshore gambling sites.
One expert estimated that Canadians gamble over $4 billion a year on offshore sports betting sites, which is more than the entire state of Ontario spends on lottery tickets. It also suggests that the “problem” (if indeed the government sees it as such) is far too big to go away and for the time being, there should not be any issues if a Canadian places sports bets online.