Appeals Court Upholds AGLC Authority Over Online Gambling Site, PlayAlberta

Alberta’s top court has ruled the Alberta Gaming, Liquor, and Cannabis Commission (AGLC) had the right to establish its online gambling site PlayAlberta, despite a First Nations challenge.

The three-member Alberta appeals court panel dismissed the case, upholding a 2022 lower-court decision that sided with the province. Tsuut’ina and Stoney Nakoda First Nations first challenged the government’s authority over Alberta’s only legal online gambling portal in April 2021.

Case Alleged AGLC Overstepped Authority Launching PlayAlberta.ca

With the appeal, the appellants argued the legality of Alberta Justice Robert Armstrong’s initial decision.

Specifically, First Nations argued Armstrong erred in his interpretation of the gaming act when he ruled AGLC had the authority to operate an Alberta online casino.

The initial filing argued AGLC’s PlayAlberta launch constituted an “unauthorized entry” into online gambling by the regulator and government.

The First Nations alleged that by becoming an operator and vendor of online gambling products, AGLC overstepped its authority and power. They argued that operating PlayAlberta is a conflict of interest under the Gaming, Liquor, and Cannabis Act for the regulator.

By the plaintiffs’ logic, AGLC either issued itself a casino license to operate online or has been illegally operating a casino without a license. The former would mean AGLC violated the gaming act, and the latter that the site is blatantly against the law.

Additionally, the filing alleged AGLC violated a moratorium on new casinos in the province while establishing itself as the proverbial “only game in town” during the pandemic.

In its defense, the AGLC says that it established an advisory committee from the Alberta gaming industry before launching online. The committee was intended to “support the relationship with existing venues” and help ensure the platform complemented land-based sites.

AGLC estimated PlayAlberta would generate $3.74 million (US$2,74 million) for the province in fiscal 2021.

AGLC Should Oversee Industries, Not “Be in the Business of Gaming”

“The province has closed casinos for a prolonged period of time, which also ensures that they are the only option available for those who want to play casino games,” said Brent Dodginghorse, CEO of Tsuut’ina Nation Gaming, to Calgary Herald at the time of the original filing.

We have taken the business risk of building and operating a casino and agreed to share revenue with the province. It is in bad faith for the province to do anything with online revenue other than allocate to existing casinos.

It’s a cautionary tale showing the United Conservative Party (UCP) decided to abandon partnerships and compete against private companies, Dodginghorse said.

AGLC’s mandate is to oversee the gaming and liquor cannabis industries in Alberta,” not “be in the business of gaming.”

We’ve had excellent relationships and operating partnerships with previous governments and all levels of AGLC.

The decision by this government now to break that understanding and begin a business competing against private companies has significantly damaged that relationship in many ways. They have said, ‘Thank you for helping establish the gaming sector in Alberta, but we’ll take it over from here.’

Top Court Sides with AGLC, Province Over PlayAlberta Challenge

Unfortunately for Tsuut’ina and Stoney Nakoda First Nations, in 2022, Justice Armstrong disagreed, ruling AGLC had the required authority.

Appeal court judges upheld that decision last week.

According to the panel’s ruling:

Importantly, within (the Criminal Code) is a distinction between a provincial government, which may operate and manage a provincially authorized lottery scheme, and others, who require provincial approval and licencing.

The Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Act says the commission “may conduct and manage provincial lotteries on behalf of the Government of Alberta.

In summary, a province is entitled to conduct and manage a provincially authorized lottery scheme. Such a scheme is authorized in Alberta as a ‘provincial lottery.’

This is different than a lottery scheme for which a non-governmental entity is authorized by a gaming licence to operate a ‘gaming activity’ on licenced premises or licenced for on-site VLTs in authorized establishments. The purpose of the provincial government’s ‘provincial lottery’ is to raise funds for general revenue.

Bonus contacted Tsuut’ina First Nation for comment but received no response before publication.

However, previous comments from Chief Roy Whitney indicate the latest decision will impact many communities.

Together, we have tried to raise our concerns with the provincial government. Unfortunately, those concerns have been ignored as our casinos remain closed during this pandemic.

This action is important to all Albertans that rely upon charity dollars through casino revenues. By entering online gaming, this government is taking away charity dollars — dollars that charities rely on. For us, these charity dollars are used to support our health, education, housing and social programs.

About the Author

Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil (she/they) is a Nova Scotia-based writer and editor, and a lead writer at Bonus. Here she focuses on news relevant to online casinos, while specializing in responsible gambling coverage, legislative developments, gambling regulations, and industry-related legal fights.
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