Province and First Nations casino owners compete for gambling dollars

The owners of Aseneskak Casino, which wants to relocate from The Pas, Man., to Winnipeg, say they're in a tough spot because they're asking the provincial government — which runs its own casinos — for permission to move.

Government is 'our regulators and our competition,' says Aseneskak Casino CEO

Operators of the Aseneskak Casino in The Pas, Man., say they must relocate the business in order to survive. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The owners of Aseneskak Casino, which wants to relocate from The Pas, Man., to Winnipeg, say they're in a tough spot because they're asking the provincial government — which runs its own casinos — for permission to move.

When the group of six northern Manitoba First Nations behind the casino signalled last month that they were looking to move to Winnipeg, the Progressive Conservative government provided a Gaming Market Study showing that the market is oversupplied throughout the province, including in the capital city.

"Any change in capacity must therefore be supported by a solid market analysis and business plan," a government spokesperson said when the study was released.

But the report also states, "If the overall provincial strategy of all industry stakeholders is to maximize revenue/profit, these same stakeholders have to accept that a new facility or new gaming device will capture a significant portion of its business from existing facilities/devices."

In other words, to make money, a First Nation-run casino in Winnipeg would have to steal gamblers from provincially operated casinos.

Can you regulate your own competition?

Aseneskak CEO Suzanne Barbeau-Bracegirdle says the casino, which opened in 2002, isn't viable in its current location in The Pas and will shut its doors in two years.

Barbeau-Bracegirdle and Chief Clarence Easter of the Chemawawin Cree Nation met with Justice Minister Heather Stefanson and Crown Services Minister Ron Schuler earlier this week to press for the relocation.

Aseneskak CEO Suzanne Barbeau Bracegirdle says the Manitoba government is both the casino's competition and its regulator. (Facebook)
Barbeau-Bracegirdle said they were told to conduct a feasibility study, but she isn't sure how level the playing field is in the gaming business.

"They [the province] are basically our regulators and our competition. So when you look at it like that, we have to follow all the rules and regulations Manitoba Lotteries gives us, and then they regulate us. So we are really bound by their decisions," Barbeau-Bracegirdle told CBC News.

Barbeau-Bracegirdle wouldn't quite define the province's position as a conflict of interest.

"It's a monopoly. And those are the things we face. We can put it as delicately as you want, but those are the things we face," she said.

Aseneskak Casino has always complied with everything Manitoba Lotteries has asked for, Barbeau-Bracegirdle said.

"They regularly audit us. All of our audits have been really good, our financials are excellent — for being transparent, for being accountable," she said.

Regulate this?

If you were looking to get into the gambling business, you'd likely be talking to the Liquor and Gaming Authority of Manitoba.

The LGA was created in 2014 to bring all the rules for gambling and the sale of liquor under one body. According to its website, the authority brings "integrated, single-window services for licensing and compliance."

But that's not in the case of the Aseneskak Casino. A spokesperson for the LGA says it is not a signatory to the agreement allowing the casino to operate and doesn't have the power to change its licence.

That job falls to the minister in charge of the LGA — a minister from a province that received just under $65 million in revenues from its own casinos in 2015.

Shark in the water

Barbeau-Bracegirdle says any decision should not be based solely on the results of a study.

"Stats can be changed to suit a person's needs," she said.

Barbeau-Bracegirdle said the request to relocate the casino to Winnipeg was initially made five years ago — before True North Sports and Entertainment was given final approval to open a gaming centre inside the Shark Club in the city's downtown.

"If that study was that important, then why did they let the Shark Club [gaming centre] go ahead?" she said.

Barbeau-Bracegirdle said she does not believe there was favouritism involved when the province issued the licence to True North for the Shark Club facility, but she said the government needs to recognize it has an agreement with the First Nations.

"We actually initiated the relocation clause five years ago, prior to the Shark Club opening," Barbeau-Bracegirdle said.

The government's approval for a gaming licence for the Shark Club has rankled First Nations leaders in the past.

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for Stefanson said the government has not received a formal request or a business plan from Aseneskak Casino.

The spokesperson said the study makes it clear that there is too much gambling already offered.

"An independent report commissioned by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, of which OCN [Opaskwayak Cree Nation in The Pas] is a member, determined earlier this year that the Manitoba gaming market, including Winnipeg, is oversaturated and cautioned against further investment," the spokesperson wrote.

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