'He owes us an apology': Manitoba Grand Chief calls for meeting with premier on First Nations gaming

Manitoba chiefs should have been in the loop about the province's plans for Aseneskak Casino according to Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, and he said the community deserves an apology and a meeting to set things straight.

AMC Grand Chief Derek Nepinak says Premier should have told First Nations about decision to nix casino move

Owners want to move Aseneskak Casino from The Pas to Winnipeg. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Manitoba chiefs should have been in the loop about the province's plans for Aseneskak Casino, according to Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, and he said the community deserves an apology and a meeting to set things straight.

Premier Brian Pallister told media last week the casino from The Pas couldn't move to Winnipeg, after the casino's management said last last month there were plans to move it to a larger market. 

Nepinak said he wasn't notified by the province and found out about the move through the media.

He said the omission "does not show the adequate amount of respect" to First Nations' work on building gaming capacity.

'Treated with silence'

"The province of Manitoba has historically had a responsibility to sit down, collaborate on development of gaming policy in Manitoba," Nepinak said. "I had the opportunity to sit down with the premier earlier this year, as well as the gaming minister to talk about … the policy position of the province when it comes to First nations, only to be treated with silence."

"I think that he owes us an apology and he owes us a meeting to talk about what is the real policy that he hopes to advance here in the province."

The group of six northern Manitoba First Nations behind the casino signalled their aim to move to Winnipeg last month. At the time, the Progressive Conservative government conducted a gaming market study that is said showed the market is oversupplied throughout the province — including in the capital city — but didn't reject the proposal outright.

Asked about whether a Winnipeg move was possible at a Sept. 15 press conference, Pallister said, "Absolutely no."

While the casino's owners have a clause in their licence agreement that allows a move and a plan to locate the casino at Assiniboia Downs, the government of Manitoba has the final say.

Edged out

Nepinak said the province controls Manitoba's "prime market" for gaming in Winnipeg, and that First Nations casinos have been edged out.

"We have, I think, borne the brunt of being pushed to the periphery of the gaming market, not just in Winnipeg but around the province," he said. "We're not yielding the same types of returns that the province is."

The province has responsibility for dealing with casinos, gaming and lotteries, but Nepinak said that doesn't equate to "ultimate authority."

"We believe we've always had strong business cases coming forward to expand our portion of the gaming for the benefit of the communities who are members of the assembly," he said.

Nepinak said the looming closure of the Tolko paper mill in The Pas — the town's biggest employer — leaves the casino no choice but to move if it wants to stay viable.

"There looks to be a downturn in the economy, and casinos rely on good cash flow in communities and a broad base of support from outlying communities as well in order to thrive," he said.

While the closure of the casino in The Pas would mean the loss of more than 140 jobs in the community, Nepinak said he's got a solution in mind for that, too.

"One of the options that the board had brought forward was to actually help community members down from the North to work within the new site if we go ahead with this," he said. "I think that's a viable option."

Province responds

A spokeswoman for the province responded to a CBC request for comment on Nepinak's statements.

"[The] Premier has been very clear on this subject and his earlier statements stand," the spokeswoman wrote in an email.

Nepinak said he plans to call the premier to request a meeting.