Laman utama aboriginal policy studies Book Review: First Nations Gaming in Canada (Belanger)

Book Review: First Nations Gaming in Canada (Belanger)

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aboriginal policy studies
September, 2011
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Book Review
First Nations Gaming in Canada by Yale D. Belanger.
Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2011.
Fiona Nicoll
aboriginal policy studies, Vol. 1, no. 2, 2011, pp. 182-187
This article can be found at:
ISSN: 1923-3299
Article DOI: 10.5663/aps.v1i2.11689

aboriginal policy studies is an online, peer-reviewed and multidisciplinary journal
that publishes original, scholarly, and policy-relevant research on issues relevant
to Métis, non-status Indians and urban Aboriginal people in Canada. For more
information, please contact us at or visit our website at
Indian and Northern
Affairs Canada

Affaires indiennes
et du Nord Canada

Federal Interlocutor
for Métis and
non-Status Indians

l’Interlocuteur fédéral
auprès des métis et des
indiens non-inscrits

Book Review
First Nations Gaming in Canada by Yale D. Belanger. Winnipeg: University
of Manitoba Press, 2011. 308 pp. $27.95 softcover

Fiona Nicoll
University of Queensland
The editor and primary author of this collection of essays is also the author
of a major study published in 2006, Gambling with the Future: the Evolution
of Aboriginal Gaming in Canada. This latest book provides a current view
of the First Nations gambling in Canada on a number of fronts: legal, social,
cultural, psychological, political, and economical. Its contributors are
academics of law, psychology, social science, and public health, as well as
professionals working in psychiatry, law, and community development. The
book is divided into four sections: legal historical issues, socio-economic and
research considerations, health, and challenges and First Nations gambling.
The strength of this book lies in its multidisciplinary approach to the topic;
its weakness is insufficient engagement with Indigenous knowledge about
historical and contemporary facets of gambling.
The first section explores;  how gaming enterprises have forced legal
and political redefinitions of “Aboriginal rights” in more or less empowering
ways for different stakeholders. Belanger provides a very useful account
of the historical construction of Indigenous gaming in law. Shifting the
focus from “cultural and ceremonial significance” to “political economy,”
he explains the importance of First Nations’ right to self-regulate highstakes gambling on and off reservations. Existing arguments about the role
of gambling in pre-colonial Indigenous societies on which legal decisions
have largely relied do not take sufficient account of the evolutionary quality
of gambling forms and practices. Belanger calls for further recognition of
the role gambling played historically in education, diplomacy, trade, and
warfare, with gambling on horse races and lacrosse being used to ameliorate
conflicts and allowing goods and pre-colonial forms of currency to circulate
aboriginal policy studies, Vol. 1, no. 2, 2011
ISSN: 1923-3299

Book Review - First Nations Gaming in Canada


between communities. This evidence that gambling was regulated within
and between communities prior to colonization supports the right of First
Nations to operate and self-regulate high-stakes gambling today.
Morden C Lazarus, Edwin D Monzon, and Richard B Wodnicki
provide an illuminating account of how the Mohawks of Kahnawa:ke
fulfil the requirements for an “Aboriginal Right” to gaming under the 1982
Constitution Act. Applying the tests of “Aboriginal rights” as established
in R. v. Sparrow [1990] R. v. Van Der Peet [1996], and R. v. Pamajewon
[1996] they demonstrate how the self-regulated operation of an internet
gaming enterprise is continuous with activities conducted within the “Great
Law of Peace” established though the Iroquois Confederacy. Belanger
and Robert J Williams, co-author the following chapter on how internet
gambling functions as “virtual sovereignty” with reference to historical
treaties between European and Canadian authorities and First Nations
people. Whether internet gambling enterprises are recognised as legal for
First Nations hinges on the following question. Are treaties “as Canadian
officials contend, simple land sales that have enabled the extension of
Canadian Sovereignty, and as such federal and provincial laws, into First
Nations lands? Or do they appropriately recognise First Nations’ nationhood
status, which suggests that localized laws and governance objectives trump
outside concerns?” (59)
The second-largest global internet gaming provider, the Kahnawa:ke
Gaming Commission, established in 1996 in Quebec, asserts its sovereign
right to persist with reference to a treaty with the British in 1664. The
Alexander Gaming Commission was established more recently, in 2006,
and cites an 1876 treaty with Britain as support for their internet venture in
Alberta. In contrast to the Kahnawa:ke Gaming Commission, the Alexander
Gaming Commission was forced to close on the basis that their Aboriginal
rights were limited to “traditional” subsistence activities of hunting and
fishing. At stake in these claims to virtual sovereignty is the power of
provinces to regulate and operate gambling as a “domestic” right—on one
hand—and the rights of First Nations to use internet gambling as a way to
sustain themselves as separate, self-governing entities on the other.
Williams introduces the second section with a detailed methodology
for assessing the socio-economic impacts of gambling. He usefully identifies
the limits of cost-benefit analyses that rely on purely economic data and
calls for thorough measurements of broader “social impacts” of gambling
within a given jurisdiction. These can include problem gambling levels,


aboriginal policy studies

wealth transfers between groups, and public and private beneficiaries both
within and outside the affected area. The importance of measuring changes
to these indicators over time is also emphasised. Strangely, considering the
topic of the book, there is no attempt to address specific issues or challenges
that First Nations gambling raises for this methodology. The claim is that it
can be applied to any gambling jurisdiction, yet ubiquitous “Indian casino”
storylines in popular film and television attest to the role played by Aboriginal
casinos in reshaping race relations in and beyond the jurisdictions where
they operate. This seems important since the subjective impact (which
Williams cites as significant and measurable) on non-Aboriginal people
of First Nations casinos may range from: satisfaction about the economic
development they generate for impoverished reserve communities; hope for
increased employment and recreational opportunities; to racial resentment
about “special Aboriginal rights.”
Harold Wynne addresses the lack of research on Aboriginal
gambling in a context where rates of problem gambling are estimated to
be three times higher than in non-Aboriginal populations. These rates,
combined with a lack of social impact studies prior to establishing gambling
enterprises, suggest a policy failure that qualitative, collaborative research
could address. He advocates Participatory Action Research as a democratic
methodology that promises to build capacity in Aboriginal communities
to better understand and seek funding opportunities to ameliorate problem
gambling. While Wynne’s description of a research process in which he
has been actively engaged is useful as an alternative to “fly-in, fly-out”
methods of studying Aboriginal social issues, I would have liked to see
more engagement with Indigenous knowledge about problem gambling. In
the absence of this engagement, non-Indigenous academic definitions of
problem gambling appear to be culturally neutral and able to be simply
“contributed” to communities experiencing negative social impacts from
Gary J Smith, Cheryl L Currie, and James Battle report on a
comparative socio-economic impact pilot study undertaken prior to the
Samson Cree Nation’s establishment of a casino. The authors gathered
information about inter-personal, intra-personal, and community impacts
of gambling, and collated this along with demographic information on age,
gender, education, household income, and family and individual histories
of addiction problems. On the basis of surveys applying the Canadian
Problem Gambling Index, two thirds of Samson Cree Nation members were

Book Review - First Nations Gaming in Canada


categorised as problem gamblers with a majority being female, married,
and in households earning less than $20,000 per year. Due to a lack of
treatment resources in the community, less than 11 percent had sought help
for their problems. The survey also found considerable ambivalence in the
community about whether the economic benefits of a casino would offset
its potential social costs, and the authors recommend possible measures to
prevent and reduce problem gambling after the casino is built.
Another chapter by Belanger reviews current debates over who is
responsible for the economic development of urban Aboriginal people—
the provinces or the First Nations with which gambling agreements are
reached? Belanger considers historical reasons that “a jurisdictional void
has developed in which the provinces and, gradually, more First Nation
councils refuse to accept responsibility for urban Aboriginal peoples.”(150)
He concludes that, since recent Supreme Court decisions have overturned
discrimination against off-reserve band members—who can now vote and
stand for council elections—the right of such groups to access gambling
revenues looks increasingly likely, even if this paradoxically undermines
First Nations’ right to self-determination.
Robert J Williams, Rhys M.G. Stevens, and Gary Nixon open
the section on Aboriginal health by interpreting statistics that have been
generated to compare gambling and problem gambling prevalence among
Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations over the past decade, paying
close attention to the methodologies and research instruments applied.
Taking into account important differences within and between Aboriginal
communities, the aggregate findings include a very significant overlap
between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal participation in, beliefs about
and attitudes towards gambling, but a comparatively intense involvement
and impact for Aboriginal gamblers living on reserves in particular.
The authors attribute the consistently higher rates of problem gambling
among Aboriginal people to bio-psychosocial factors including rates of
participation, cultural beliefs, social disadvantage, a youthful population,
and gambling availability.
Sharon Yanicki, David Gregory, and Bonnie Lee apply the “wheel
of medicine” and sustainable development theory to their analysis of
problem gambling. A critical socio-ecological perspective is advocated as
an alternative research method to existing bio-psychosocial approaches,
which construct certain kinds of individuals and communities as inherently
“vulnerable” to problem gambling. Presenting Aboriginal gambling


aboriginal policy studies

behaviours in the context of broader economic and human rights struggles,
they argue that, to the extent that First Nations casinos are sustainable
and promote healthy gambling behaviours, they may form part of action
designed to positively redress health inequities in Canada.
Belanger opens the final section on challenges with a forensic
analysis of a corporate governance scandal, which saw the firing of the CEO
of the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority (SIGA) for misappropriation
of funds. He examines SIGA’s response to the damage to its corporate
image and identifies unique issues posed by the self-regulation of Indian
gaming within overarching structures of provincial government. Citing the
findings of the 2006 Harvard Project’s study of successful and unsuccessful
Native American economic ventures, he uses this case to demonstrate how
essential the separation of economic and political agendas is for the success
of First Nations gambling enterprises.
Casino Rama is the largest single site employer of First Nations
people in Canada. Darrel Manitowabi’s chapter examines respective claims
made by First Nations and the province of Ontario about the appropriate
distribution of financial benefits from this enterprise. Rather than seeing
these claims as mutually exclusive he “emphasises the political negotiations
surrounding casino development and the discourse of First Nations selfdetermination within the context of neoliberalism in Ontario.” (256) Using
Richard White’s concept of the “middle ground” as a means of resolving
conflicts of interest by means other than force, Manitowabi concludes that
a “partial middle-ground” of self-determination exists to contest provincial
hegemony and neo-liberal capitalism. While the casino “provides capital
used to address community local needs (272) …the cost of this investment
has been independently guided, economic self-determination.” (273)
Belanger’s final chapter is on the uneasy relationship between labour unions
and First Nation casinos. His historical overview, of how First Nations
peoples’ participation in paid employment over the twentieth century was
affected by government policies and everyday practices of racism, explains
why Aboriginal casino owners are not automatically well-disposed to the
union movement. In this context, union-busting can function as an exercise
in self-government as casinos resist the encroachment of provincial
regulatory powers by developing their own labour codes and defending
them as deriving from treaty rights.
Overall, this book provides a valuable snapshot of the research
landscape surrounding First Nations gambling in Canada, in which Belanger

Book Review - First Nations Gaming in Canada


clearly looms large, contributing just under half of the chapters as editor, coauthor, or author. Having said this, I was disappointed that the contribution
of Indigenous researchers was not more substantial. Manitowabi’s
contribution is the most notable exception, combining post-colonial theory,
detailed historical research, and interviews to provide a rich account of
the cultural politics of Casino Rama. Yanicki, Gregory, and Lee also draw
on qualitative methods generated by Indigenous Knowledge to unsettle
assumptions about First Nations pathologies, thus opening some new paths
towards understanding the health impacts of gambling enterprises.
First Nations Gaming in Canada left me with a desire and a related
question. The desire was to read more Indigenous academic writing about
First Nations gaming. The question it raised for me, as a non-Indigenous
academic who has researched Indigenous gaming in Australia, the US,
and Canada is: what makes First Nations gambling so intriguing to nonIndigenous academics, journalists, and popular culture producers, and
apparently so much less interesting to Indigenous academics?
Dr Fiona Nicoll is the author of From Diggers to Drag Queens: Configurations
of Australian National Identity (2001), and of articles and chapters in the
areas of queer theory, reconciliation, and Indigenous sovereignties and
cultural studies of gambling. She is also a founding member and former vice
president of the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association