Last week, Ontario Treasurer Floyd Laughren announced that the province would legalize year-round casino gambling starting in 1993. Although the NDP government has not yet decided whether it will run the gambling operations, the province would become the fourth jurisdiction in Canada, after British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba, to license casinos. So far, only the Manitoba government has chosen to own and operate a gambling house. Maclean’s Senior Writer Patricia Chisholm recently visited Winnipeg’s Crystal Casino, which opened in December, 1989, after a fierce public debate about the merits of government involvement in gambling, to assess its progress. Her report:
In a room lit by the eerie glow from 219 blinking, clanking slot machines, a plainly dressed 51-year-old woman watches intently as a friend shovels $1 coins into one of their favorite games, a one-armed bandit advertising a jackpot of more than $191,000. A
self-described gambling addict who requested anonymity, she says that she visits Winnipeg’s Crystal Casino no more than once or twice a month, far less often than in the past. Her previous all-too-frequent showdowns with the slot machines came at a price: by her own accounting, she has lost $15,000 in the casino since it opened almost years ago. “I used to get a $500 cash advance on my Visa card, lose it, and then go back for another $500 after midnight,” says the woman. “I’d do that every day for a week.” Although she sometimes won—including eight $1,600 prizes—it was never enough, and the mountain of debt only grew larger. Now, casting her eye over the slot machines on a recent Wednesday evening, she says that the casino, which is owned and operated by the Manitoba government, should never have opened. “People like me,” she says, “just can’t stay away.”
Greed and the thrill of gambling draw hundreds of people to the elegant gaming rooms of
the Crystal Casino six days a week, almost every week of the year. Although this is a slow night—the Winnipeg Jets are playing a home game—more than 900 gamblers are scattered among the casino’s four rooms in downtown Winnipeg’s renovated Hotel Fort Garry; at peak periods, the number of patrons has reached 2,500. Periodically, shouts of joy explode from the slots room. Some of the patrons gathered around the 26 gaming tables smile with satisfaction. But for the most part, the gamblers concentrate intently on their games of blackjack, roulette and baccarat. So they should: with the odds stacked in favor of the house, the big winner tonight will be the Manitoba Lotteries Foundation, the provincial agency that operates the facility.
Last year, the casino spun off $13.2 million in profits. Most of that money went straight into Manitoba’s Health Services Development Fund, which sponsors health-promotion programs that are intended to reduce long-term medical costs. Even so, some critics remain staunchly opposed to the casino, among them Dianne Cooper, executive secretary of the United Church Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario. The church, which has about four million members across the country, has long opposed any kind of gambling, with many parishes even refusing government
grants of money generated by lotteries and other games of chance. Says Cooper: “Gambling looks attractive because the government is frantic for money. But check out the odds— it’s a fool’s game. If it is viewed simply as an evening out, it is not dangerous. But for others, it is as addictive as alcohol, with all the problems that implies.”
Cooper also complains that the architectural elegance of the Crystal Casino glamorizes gambling. Unlike smaller, privately run casinos in British Columbia and Alberta, the Crystal Casino, renovated and equipped at a cost of $5 million, radiates an atmosphere of turn-of-thecentury refinement. The gaming room’s cathedral ceilings are carved and overlaid with gold leaf. Huge mirrors in the main gaming room, separated from the banks of slot machines by a reception area, reflect the glow from 18 crystal chandeliers and brass wall sconces. The beautifully crafted gaming tables are from France (the slot machines are made in Japan) and feature polished wood trim and brass fittings. Unlike most casinos, no alcohol is served— patrons may drink in the hotel’s two bars before and after playing—and a dress code requiring a jacket and tie or “equivalent dress” is carefully enforced.
Still, few visitors would mistake the facility for Monaco’s Monte Carlo Casino. Most of the Winnipeg patrons are of modest means, and even the occasional gamblers out for a brief flirtation with lady luck project a casual air. Thomas Campbell, a Winnipeg social worker, has managed to get in with a string tie and cowboy boots. Although he has already lost the $50 that he set as his limit for the night, Campbell says that he supports the casino’s existence. “I work with inner-city kids, and I’m glad to see the money from the Lotteries Foundation doing some good,” he says. As for those addicted to gambling, Campbell notes that even without the Crystal Casino, they would somehow manage to satisfy their yearnings. “There’s a race track that’s been here for years, or they’ll find a card game,” Campbell says. “People who are going to gamble will always find a game somewhere.”
Many of the Crystal Casino’s patrons have indeed tried their luck at other games. Lisa McKay, who worked at a downtown Winnipeg doughnut shop until it shut down last week, says that she has lost far more at bingo than she normally does at the casino. “I was down $1,500 in February, going to bingo every night,” McKay says. She adds that her mother has better luck, occasionally winning enough at blackjack to help her daughter retrieve her possessions from a local pawnshop. Says McKay, who is 19 and started gambling when she was 14: “The casino is OK for some people—it depends on who you are. Some people don’t know when to stop.”
Although Manitoba Lotteries Foundation general director William Funk acknowledges that the casino appeals to addicted gamblers, he says that his staff will refuse admission to people who recognize that they have a gambling problem and ask to be barred from the casino. Says Funk: “We respect the views of those who are opposed to gambling, but we look upon it as a fact of life. Seventy per cent of our players have played elsewhere. We would rather keep those players and their dollars in the province.”
And whether or not they agree with the idea of gambling, local officials say that the casino has had no obvious negative impact on the city.
Insp. Ray Johns of the Winnipeg police department’s vice division says that the facility’s security measures and the absence of alcohol have helped to prevent any significant increase in crimes often associated with gaming houses, including theft and prostitution. As well, many former police officers work at the casino as security guards, creating a close relationship with the police that Johns says has been the key to the casino’s smooth operation.
In fact, some community members say that the casino has resulted in a significant increase in revenues for Winnipeg businesses, from taxi companies to neighboring hotels. It has also given a new lease on life to the Hotel Fort Garry, which was on the verge of bankruptcy before it was purchased by Quebec real estate developer Raymond Malenfant in 1988. Although Malenfant receives nothing from the casino except yearly rent of $250,000, his son Alain, a vice-president of the family-owned company, says that the hotel’s occupancy rate has jumped by 40 per cent since the casino opened. The Malenfants, whose businesses have been hurt badly by the recent sharp fall in property values, are now vigorously lobbying the Quebec government to permit a similar casino in another of their hotels, the Manor Richelieu in Pointe-au-Pic, 90 km east of Quebec City.
Both father and son are strong supporters of government involvement in gambling, which they say reduces the possibility of criminal activity. Says Alain: “Where there is money, there is temptation. Here, there is no hankypanky. There is nothing more important than the credibility of the casino.” The gamblers who gravitate to the Crystal Casino, nursing dreams of that one big payoff, would surely agree.
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