CANADA

HOOKED ON THE GAME

DALE EISLER January 9 1995
CANADA

HOOKED ON THE GAME

DALE EISLER January 9 1995

HOOKED ON THE GAME

CANADA

DALE EISLER

It is a tragic story that has become all too common. Unable to control her gambling habits, Betty Ann Schultz began stealing money from her employer. At first, she covered her tracks by taking out bank loans to replace the money she took from the cashier’s till while she managed a small recycling depot in Strasbourg, Sask., 80 km north of Regina. Finally, both her credit and her luck ran out. Admitting that she stole $9,000, Schultz pleaded guilty in mid-December to a charge of theft over $1,000. Later this month, the 40-yearold separated mother of two, who has no previous criminal record, will be sentenced for her crime.

Meanwhile, in two other Saskatchewan towns, eerily similar stories were unfolding. In Kindersley, Christina Pederson, a mother of five who also worked at a recycling depot, confessed on Dec. 15 to stealing $14,000 from her employer to feed her gambling compulsion. She will be sentenced in February. And on Nov. 16, Karen Koska, a longtime hotel employee in North Battleford, was given a two-year suspended sentence for stealing $34,000 from her bosses. Koska, who was described by the hotel manager as an “otherwise excellent employee,” told the court that she initially tried to cover her gambling debts by tak-

ing out bank loans and cashing in her RRSPs. But eventually, she said, her gambling addiction drove her to more desperate actions. Aside from the similarity of their circumstances, what is common to the three women is that they were all hooked on playing video lottery terminals (VLTs). A kind of high-tech slot machine, VLTs have become the backbone of a burgeoning gambling industry across the Prairies. “They are the crack cocaine of gambling addiction,” says Frank Gribbon, a Regina businessman, recovered compulsive gambler and founder of the Saskatchewan Council on Compulsive Gambling.

Unlike other forms of gambling, where winning or losing usually takes time, the emotional jolt from playing VLTs is immediate. For Schultz, the lure was more than she could resist. Almost daily for more than six months, she would go straight from work to play the machines at the Strasbourg Family Restaurant, sometimes staying until it closed at 11:30 p.m. “It was like I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing,” recalls Schultz. “I was in this fog, but I would get a thrill with every quarter I played.”

The addictive gambling devices have been spreading across the

Gambling across the Prairies raises fierce new opposition

Prairies over the past two years. Premier Roy Romanow’s NDP government approved the installation of 3,400 VLTs in licensed bars and restaurants across the province. The government had faced pressure from the provincial hotels association, which said that its members—especially the operators of smaller, cash-strapped rural hotels—desperately needed the added revenue. But it was not just smalltown hotel owners who were seduced by the potential windfall. The province currently rakes in 85 per cent of VLT revenues. For 1994 alone, it expects to collect at least $75 million, which will be tallied as general revenue and put towards the deficit.

Neighboring provinces have found the gambling devices equally irresistible. In Manitoba, the provincially owned Lotteries Corp. operates 5,000 VLTs as well a Las Vegas-style casino in the historic Fort Garry Hotel. Last year, the Manitoba government collected $181 million in gambling revenue, and anticipates raking in another $210 million in 1994-1995. Of that, about $90 million will go towards reducing the province’s deficit.

It is a similar story in Alberta, where Premier Ralph Klein’s Conservative government last year collected $207 million from about 3,700 VLTs. That money was earmarked for community initiatives and to offset health and education expenditures. Today, there are more than 5,600 VLTs in the province, a figure expected to hit 6,000 by March. And just last week, the head of a legislature committee examining all aspects of lottery policy in Alberta said that the provincial government will study allowing Las Vegasstyle, for-profit casinos in Alberta. Judy Gordon said that several people in Calgary and Edmonton are eager to open such operations if the province changes its rules on casinos.

But the windfalls come at some political cost. In Saskatchewan, anti-gambling sentiment has steadily grown, with a recent provincewide poll by the Leader-Star News Service showing 72 per cent of respondents with an opinion opposed to the government’s policy on increasing access to VLTs and casinos. Critics argue that the government failed to g appreciate the social costs of introducing VLTs. || Indeed, a toll-free help line for problem gamblers— which fielded 819 calls in the past seven months || alone—was not installed until almost a year after the devices first appeared. Meanwhile, the government has scrambled to train a team of 24 addiction counsellors.

But with VLTs already in place across the province, the political focus for the anti-gambling forces has recently shifted to the Romanow government’s plans to build and own two Las Vegas-style casinos—one in Regina and one in Saskatoon. In an attempt to prevent Indian bands from opening casinos on reserves, the government struck an agreement with the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations last spring. Under the deal, the natives were to get most of the 800 casino jobs and collect 25 per cent of the gambling revenues.

But what the government did not bet on was widespread public hostility to the proposed casinos. Romanow has declared the Saskatoon casino “dead” after 75 per cent of voters opposed the idea in an October plebiscite. Meanwhile, in Regina, a group called Citizens Against Gambling Expansion (CAGE) won a court decision in November overturning the rezoning of the former Via Rail station that the province purchased as the site for the casino. If that decision is not overturned by an upcoming appeal, the Regina casino is likely also dead. Said Romanow: “We are not going to force casinos on communities that don’t want them.”

Not surprisingly, the idea of the Romanow government plunging into the gambling business is creating strains in a party that takes pride in its legacy of pioneering social programs such as medicare under the leadership of legendary New Democrats such as Tommy Douglas. ‘Tommy

IIKWKTOF

Douglas would be spinning in his grave if he knew what was happening in Saskatchewan,” says Ron Clark, a member of CAGE. But so far, Romanow’s control of the Saskatchewan NDP has allowed him to keep his critics at bay. At the party’s recent annual convention, a resolution calling on the government to eliminate all VLTs and drop plans for its casinos did not even reach the floor for debate. Still, many New Democrats are openly unhappy with the spread of gambling.

One who does not hide his opposition to the government’s gambling policy is backbench MLA Serge Kujawa. The onetime senior Crown prosecutor says that he used to prosecute people for doing what the government now does. Kujawa says he has a “very fundamental, very ethical” problem with the government’s approach to gambling. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “it should continue to be where it has been for centuries— an indictable criminal offence.” Some other New Democrats are equally opposed to gambling becoming a major growth industry in the province but fear speaking out. “I’m totally opposed,” said one Regina businessman and longtime NDP supporter, who asked for anonymity. ‘There are many of us who would like to openly criticize what’s going on, but you don’t dare because the government is so vindictive.”

Privately, sources say that Romanow is trying to find a way to defuse the gambling debate. With the possibility of a provincial

election as early as June, Romanow would like to set aside the casino issue until after the vote. But complicating the situation is the agreement with the province’s natives. With the promised casinos in Regina and Saskatoon now in doubt, they are threatening to forge ahead with on-reserve gambling houses.

Although the debate is currently focused on casinos, many observers argue that the pervasiveness of the VLTs is a far greater

and more insidious social concern. One who has tried to analyze the effects of VLTs is Barbara Gfellner, a Brandon University psychology professor. Of the 507 VLT users surveyed by Gfellner in Manitoba in 1993,9.3 per cent could be classified as problem, or potential problem, gamblers. But she concedes that the number could be higher because few compulsive gamblers are willing to acknowledge that they are hooked. Adds Gfellner: “They s simply incorporate into their g behavior a certain amount of I guilt because gambling is I seen as a negative activity.”

I Although problem gams biers seem evenly divided between men and women, the study found that women reported a greater change in their behavior after playing the VLTs. Says Gfellner: ‘Women were more likely than men to rate VLTs as an exciting way to gamble.” For recovering gambling addicts like Betty Ann Schultz, that is a lesson that had to be learned the hard way.

DALE EISLER in Regina with MARY NEMETH in Calgary