On April 7, Maclean’s Associate Editor Stephanie Nolen took the late-night bus from Toronto to Casino Rama, 155 km to the north on the Ojibwa native reserve. Her report on the year-round, 24-hour casino:
The streets of downtown Toronto are largely deserted when John pulls his bus out of the station. There are just a few passengers onboard his regular 10 p.m. run. John makes this trip every night of the week, dropping passengers in Barrie and Orillia, and, last stop, Casino Rama. This is a special bus, the free bus: for gamblers
bound for Rama, the casino pays the $9.95 fare. John has his regulars, like the grubby old man who sits mute in the front seat, and the blond woman in the back row. “She takes this bus every night,” John confides quietly, his voice rounded by a strong Scottish accent. “I think she may have a bit of a problem.”
The casino looms suddenly out of the night like an enormous Wal-Mart, tarted up with winking white lights and covered in garish murals of native art. Well after midnight, the huge parking lot is still half full. John pulls the bus into one of the dozen bays in the back. An energetic young man leaps on and asks: ‘You playing?” Before I can answer, he shoves a voucher for $15 worth of free food in my hand. John points out where to catch the free bus back to Toronto, at 5:30 a.m. “Gets you back to Toronto just in time for work!” the fellow with the vouchers reminds us.
Inside, a bright young woman called Stephanie, a “host” on the graveyard shift, opens the glass doors into the cavernous casino. It is dark and smoky, and the noise is deafening: hundreds of slot machines, whirring and pinging and beeping, the chink of quarters falling into the metal tray in front of a lucky winner, the “last bets” bellows from the roulette tables. It will be hours before I
The noise is deafening at Casino Rama
realize that, while the tables are jammed and the noise is pervasive, almost no one is talking. There are no clocks and no windows. It might be noon.
Colleen, 23, has arrived on John’s bus. Until two weeks ago, she worked as a blackjack dealer in a Toronto charity casino called Sunshine, making about $11 an hour, including tips. Now, she has applied for employment insurance, having been laid off while the provincial government finalizes plans for permanent charity casinos. “I’ve never gone to a casino by myself so I’m sorta nervous,” Colleen says, striding purposefully towards the blackjack ta-
bles. An hour later, armed with $260 withdrawn from a handy Bank of Nova Scotia automatic teller at the edge of the green baize card tables, she is breaking even, constantly clicking her red $5 chips into little piles while she keeps her eyes on the dealer. “The pop is free,” she whispers, gesturing to a glass of ginger ale. “See that guy at the end of the table? He’s lost $500 since we got here.” The man who is losing is Chinese. Stephanie says that AsianCanadians from Toronto comprise at least half of Rama’s clientele. She points out the Willow restaurant, where they serve “real Chinese food” and Asian patrons are tucking into black cod. The casino also has a staff of Asian hosts and dealers who cater to those clients. “They know the etiquette and the superstitions and stuff,” Stephanie explains. In the roped-off high-rollers room, where $100 bills sit in casual stacks, all the players are Asian. There is a lot of laughter around a high-stakes game of baccarat.
Back in the main casino, deep in the maze of slot machines, the scene is very different. Gamblers in cardigans and sweat suits slump in front of whirring machines, feeding in coins, sometimes straddling a chair to play two machines at once. Millie Hadley, 66, is playing the 25-cent slots. She comes a few nights a week. “I can’t sleep at night since my husband died a year ago,” explains Millie, who lives an hour away in Lindsay. She has won about $4,000 in recent weeks, but is unsure how much she spent to win it. “I guess I should keep track. I’m sure I lose more than I win.” Has Stephanie heard any horror stories, or seen regular clients become addicted? “We’re in the entertainment business,” she
responds firmly. “We’re not here to drain people’s pockets.” Then she mentions that a few patrons have had themselves legally barred from the casino—if they cannot manage to stay away, they are forcibly removed by police officers who patrol the gaming floor or by casino security. “Things like that, and when I see people losing every night and I know they
don’t have the money—then it’s sort of sad,” Stephanie says. Just as Millie is showing her lucky stuffed pig, two burly casino security guards equipped with walkie-talkies appear beside us. They are polite but furious that I am talking to patrons unaccompanied by Rama public relations staff, and they demand that I stop. In a gesture of goodwill, they offer to let me keep my notebook before ejecting me. Outside, it is nearly dawn. The elegant female hostess of a Tai Pan Vacation tour bus kindly squeezes me into the last empty seat amid boisterous gamblers. Most of them doze off, waking in the semi-darkness at a succession of suburban Toronto malls, and getting into the BMWs and Saabs they have left parked there. “Next week,” one man calls to the guide as he gets in his car. “Oh, every night,” she replies quietly. All night, every night, at Casino Rama. □
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