Unhooking Charities on Gambling

Article excerpt

You might call Judi Bergen an accidental activist.

She didn't intend to get involved with a group called RAGE - Residents Against Gambling Expansion. (For one thing, "a lot of us felt that the acronym wasn't quite appropriate," she says.) But Ms. Bergen became part of a wave of grass-roots activism that is successfully challenging the expansion of gambling across Canada.

Last month, the Ontario government abandoned a plan to open 44 casinos across the province, a move that would have made it second only to Nevada as the most gambling-intensive jurisdiction in North America.

Bergen got involved when she was asked to attend a RAGE meeting being held at her church. She has since come to view the gambling issue as one with "broad tentacles ... and an incredible potential for disaster."

Complicating the issue is the role of charities: The Canadian principle that gambling revenues must be used for "the public good" was intended to make gambling subservient to civic good works. In practice, however, it has tended to encourage the charities' dependence on gambling revenues.

"Commercial casinos" here exist in partnership with the provincial government, and some casinos are ventures between the charities and the operators. As a result, Canadian charitable organizations of all kinds, including many churches, are as much hooked on gambling as are local governments.

While not accepting gambling revenues as a matter of policy, The United Church of Canada wants to know the true cost of gambling. The UCC, the largest Protestant church in Canada, is calling for a full federal inquiry into the social, economic, and legal impact of gambling.

Understanding gambling behavior

A call for "more study" is, as often as not, a stalling tactic. And the UCC's Bonnie Greene concedes that there is a "long tradition of Royal Commission reports gathering dust on the shelves." But she insists that a federal study is essential if city councils are to make informed evaluations of developers' proposals for new casinos.

Len Hendrickson, an independent researcher in North Vancouver, British Columbia, says that in the field of addiction research, "gambling is kind of the new kid on the block...." At the Addiction Research Library in Toronto, for instance, "If you collected everything on alcohol and drug addiction, you'd get enough to fill, well, a library. …