How casino closures are draining the resources of Alberta charities and First Nations

The closure of casinos in Alberta is affecting not just the operators' bottom lines but also hundreds of charities and First Nations that depend on gaming revenue.

Groups are coming up with creative ways to make up for the shortfall

Casinos in Alberta have been closed for most of the pandemic. Groups that rely on charitable gaming revenue from casino events have been trying to raise funds in other ways. (nazarovsergey/Shutterstock)

The closure of casinos in Alberta is affecting not just the operators' bottom lines but also hundreds of charities and First Nations that depend on gaming revenue.

During casino events, volunteers from sports teams, veterans' groups, non-profits and community leagues exchange their labour for a portion of casino revenues. In 2019, that revenue share amounted to $168 million. 

Many groups have seen their casino events postponed and future events are up in the air.

Casinos are currently under the province's current COVID-19 restrictions not scheduled to reopen until Alberta moves to Step 3 of the reopening plan. 

According to the AGLC, approximately 1,200 charities have been affected by gaming venue closures since December 13.

"This has been a huge hit for leagues," said Laura Cunningham-Shpeley, executive director of the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues. She said a majority of leagues rely on casino revenue.

Les Barker, president and casino director of Hairsine Community League in northeast Edmonton, said his league is out $70,000 because its casino event has been postponed.

Casino funds make up 70 per cent of the league's revenue and are used to pay for sports programs, an outdoor rink and maintenance. 

Many leagues did not open their ice rinks this winter because they did not have the money to maintain them, he added.

Executive director Deborah Rose said casino revenue is extremely important for the Edmonton Aboriginal Seniors Centre. The centre last held a casino event in August of 2019 and was anticipating having one this year. 

Without those funds, "some of our programs are going to suffer," she said. 

First Nations also losing money

Casino closures are also affecting Host First Nation casinos on reserve land. 

Chief Billy Morin told CFWE Radio Network that Enoch Cree Nation lost $26 million because the River Cree Casino was closed for three months last year.

Laurel Wheeler, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Alberta, said many Indigenous communities across North America depend on gaming revenue and will be disproportionately affected by the pandemic closures.

"It will take a while for those communities to recover," she said.

Creative fundraising attempts

Many groups are now turning to other ways of fundraising. 

The non-profit Shamrock Curling Club, which received about $74,000 in charitable gaming revenue in 2019, asked its membership to relinquish their refunds from the past season in exchange for loyalty cards.

Hairsine Community League received a grant from the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation and is applying for a sustainable food grant for its community garden.

"We were thinking of doing a 50/50 drive, but the board hasn't really been sold on that since there are 50/50 drives everywhere right now," Barker said.

The Edmonton Aboriginal Seniors Centre received some money from the provincial government's Small and Medium Enterprise Relaunch Grant and plans to host a "Donate a Car" event.

Cunningham-Shpeley said more community leagues are now rethinking their funding models.

Earlier this year, Ritchie Community League launched a tiered subscription service to offset pandemic-related financial losses. 

The provincial government said in its budget that AGLC net income from gaming and lottery activities fell dramatically during the pandemic but it is forecast to recover relatively quickly and grow.


Madeleine Cummings is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She covers local news for CBC Edmonton's web, radio and TV platforms. You can reach her at madeleine.cummings@cbc.ca.