Is bingo illegal? Seniors vow to keep playing until Ontario's gaming laws change

A single complaint about "illegal bingo" in Mississauga has angered some seniors and has prompted Mayor Bonnie Crombie to call on the Ontario government to change its gaming laws.

'I will keep on playing bingo until they come here and put handcuffs on me,' says 1 senior

Seniors play bingo at a Mississauga, Ont. community centre. The city received a single complaint about the activity, alleging that is illegal under Ontario gaming laws, and a letter from the city sent to the Mississauga Seniors' Council has made some seniors nervous about playing. Some seniors are defiant, saying if they have to go to jail, they will. (CBC)

A single complaint about "illegal bingo" in Mississauga has angered some seniors and has prompted Mayor Bonnie Crombie to call on the Ontario government to change its gaming laws.

Crombie said she has talked to Dipika Damerla, Ontario minister responsible for seniors affairs and a Mississauga MPP, about "closing this loophole" after the complaint about illegal bingo at one of Mississauga's 11 community centres. 

"It's a social activity. It allows seniors to come together and enjoy a social experience a couple times a week. It's a very worthwhile activity for them. This is an unintended consequence of the gaming laws. We need to have that addressed."

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario considers bingo to be a lottery if there's a fee charged and a cash prize offered, and therefore a licence is needed to play. Otherwise, with no licence, it's technically illegal.

Crombie said bingo at community centres is not about gambling. "I wouldn't be surprised if the average take was under $100. They certainly play with pennies and nickels and dimes. Nobody is profiting. This is just done for a social activity."

The mayor said the city bylaw officers enforce the law when there is a complaint made. "To date, we only have had one complaint."

Crombie said there has not been a crackdown but a letter has been sent to the Mississauga Seniors' Council to indicate it is not considered legal to play bingo for nickels and dimes. No seniors have been arrested.

"It's gotten our seniors a little bit nervous. None of our seniors want to break the law," she said. "No one wants to be in breach of the law."

Frank Stendardo, president of the Huron Park Italo-Canadian Seniors Club, founded in 2007 as a social group for seniors, said no law is going to prevent him from playing bingo. He said the complaint is affecting about 10,000 seniors in the city. The club plays bingo on Thursday and Friday nights.

"I will keep on playing bingo until they come here and put handcuffs on me," he said. "To me, it would be a good cause. And if I have to go to jail because of that, I go to jail."

Stendardo said if seniors who enjoy bingo cannot play it, they will become depressed because it is a vital social activity for them. "We have people 97 years old. We celebrate their birthdays here."

He said a jackpot is pocket change. "You never see paper money," he said. "It's metal money if you will."

Pierina Presciutti, a Mississauga senior, said seniors look forward to sitting around the table with their friends and playing bingo.

"That's a shame for all the seniors because a lot of them, they come just to have fun. They don't have much else to do," she said. "A lot of people cannot wait for 7 o'clock on Thursday night to come to bingo. We are not hurting anybody."