A new Vegas-style casino opening in West Toronto this summer is getting pushback from Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation (MSIFN) and Niagara Falls mayor Jim Diodati.
Great Canadian Entertainment’s (GCE) announcement of Great Canadian Casino Resort Toronto shows “utter disregard for our First Nation,” said MSIFN representatives in a release denouncing the development.
Meanwhile, Diodati expressed concern about the luxury billion-dollar resort’s impact on the two casinos in Niagara Falls: Fallsview and Casino Niagara.
The new development is situated next to Woodbine Racetrack, close to Toronto Pearson International Airport and about 40 minutes outside downtown Toronto. The complex will include a modern casino, 400-room hotel, 5,000-seat entertainment venue, and multiple dining options.
Diodati, in an interview with Niagara Falls Review, said:
Instead of all fighting over the same pie, or instead of cutting the pie into smaller pieces, it’s time to grow the pie.
Province “Acting to Disadvantage” Great Blue Heron Casino: MSIFN
MSIFN describes the project as a “megacasino.” It says that by opening such a large gaming facility near Toronto, the province is “acting to disadvantage” the First Nation’s Great Blue Heron Casino (GBH).
Unsurprisingly, the First Nation shared its frustration in the release:
The Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation are outraged by the disrespect shown to their First Nation by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) and Great Canadian Entertainment (GCE).
For context, GBH is located on Scugog Island, near Port Perry, Ontario. About a 100 km drive (60 mi) separates it from the new Great Canadian Casino Resort.
While the Mississsaugas own the casino and land, Great Canadian operates the property under the direction and regulation of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation and Ontario’s Alcohol and Gaming Commission (AGCO).
In 2016, the First Nation signed an agreement with Ontario and OLG as part of the province’s modernization efforts.
This partly meant bringing GBH’s operations in line with other government casinos in the GTA. The deal also provided a revenue share to MSIFN for development and community services.
MSIFN Chief Kelly LaRocca addressed the 2016 deal:
We entered into our agreements with OLG and the government with a shared understanding that OLG and the government would act in good faith and in accordance with their Honour of the Crown obligations, and in particular their contractual obligations set out in the agreements.
Once again, the government is acting without any engagement with MSIFN and is acting to disadvantage the Great Blue Heron Casino at MSIFN.
Lack of Consultation Violates Charter Rights, Claim MSIFN
LaRocca’s “once again” refers to earlier dustups with the province and OLG over gambling.
In June 2022, the Ontario government agreed to mediation with MSIFN over claims it violated agreements in bad faith. MSIFN also said the government failed to consult the First Nation on gaming decisions materially affecting the community.
Specifically, the Nation is reacting to the opening of Pickering Casino not far from GBH.
They claim the decision and lack of consultation violates Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution Act, which recognizes and affirms Indigenous rights. MSIFN calls out Premier Doug Ford’s government directly, claiming it broke a previous agreement limiting casinos in the area.
From an MSIFN statement that June:
Without any manner of notice to MSIFN, the Ford government passed regulations to allow the Pickering Casino Resort to operate in breach of the government’s commitments with MSIFN to not operate any new casino in the [Greater Toronto area] within close proximity [to] MSIFN’s Great Blue Heron Casino.
The Pickering casino’s opening is yet another glaring example of Premier Ford’s willingness to tread over signed agreements for political ends. This government has rewritten the Ontario gaming map to suit its own agenda.
Also, MSIFN previously raised concerns about expanding the Ajax Downs racetrack and Woodbine Casino. And that was before they knew about the latter’s billion-dollar price tag.
MSFIN seeks relief for “claims of agreement violations, bad faith negotiations, and failures to provide consultation related to gaming.”
In June, LaRocca said they trusted the mediation process and looked forward to addressing “longstanding issues.”
MSFIN’s grievances with the province aren’t limited to retail gambling. In February 2022, the Nation criticized Ontario’s online gambling transformation, calling the changes a “slap in the face.” Another First Nation government, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke, is challenging the market’s legality in court.
Niagara Mayor Wary of Local Impacts, Critizes ON Casino Model
Niagara Mayor Diodati has similar issues with the new Toronto casino. However, his objections don’t carry the same political baggage as relations between First Nations and Canadian provincial governments. Nor does his city benefit from Charter protections.
Regardless, he’s concerned about the new luxury resort’s impacts on Niagara.
He also takes issue with the province’s management of Ontario casinos.
“In this model, the outside operator is never going to invest major money to update somebody else’s building,” Diodati said.
The way it works in Las Vegas and other major gaming destinations is the operator owns the site, so it’s to their advantage to reinvest in it, rebuild it and redevelop it. It creates more incentive for more economic development.
Diodati believes Ontario should be targeting international visitors, particularly Americans.
“A very small portion of our gamblers at our casinos in Niagara Falls are from the U.S.,” said Diodati.
Let’s focus our cannons on the U.S. market. If we do this right, we can draw in the Americans.
Niagara Falls is a global, iconic destination and nothing against any other site — Toronto’s strength is they’ve got millions of people that live there. Our strength is we’re one of the most famous cities on the planet.
Richard Taylor, president of Niagara Casinos, took a different tone, telling NFR about the upgrades at Fallsview Casino and Casino Niagara since Monhegan Gaming & Entertainment (MGE) took over in 2019. He said $32 million in improvements included new dining options and a 5,000-seat entertainment venue.
We will continue to contribute to the long-term competitiveness of the Niagara market and believe the future is bright for Niagara Casinos as we announce new big-name entertainment each and every week and look forward to the opening of a new Sportsbook in late 2023.
MSIFN, Ontario Head to Mediation this Summer
It seems unlikely either complaint will impact the resort’s eventual opening.
However, MSIFN could see some compensation. The mediation between the First Nation and Ontario over the government’s actions should reach an outcome this summer.
OLG recently lost a similar claim by Ontario First Nations Limited Partnership (OFNLP), representing multiple Nations.
In that case, the court ruled OLG must continue paying a percentage of non-gaming casino operations revenue to OFNLP, despite no longer receiving that revenue.
“We’ve been engaging with the government, OLG, and Great Canadian Entertainment on these issues for years, and finally, we’ve reached the point of entering mediation in the coming months,” said Chief LaRocca.
Once again, however, the Ford government chooses to implement its decisions and ask questions later. It’s utter disregard for our First Nation and the Honour of the Crown. We continue to focus our good faith efforts on the mediation and will brace for whatever comes next.