“Indian-run casinos,” or, in more up-to-date parlance, “First Nations casinos” in Canada have become such an essential part of the country’s gambling landscape that it’s hard to imagine just about 20 years have passed since the first such casinos opened in the mid-1990s.
Though Canada’s federal government had given provinces the right to regulate and monitor legal gambling by 1985, the matter of gaming on reservation land remained disputed into the 90s. The Golden Eagle Charitable Casino & Gaming Centre opened in Ontario in 1994 and remains open for business to this day, but the true watershed legal developments for Indian-run casinos in Canada happened in 1995.
That year in June, the FSIN (Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations) First Nations Gaming Act was signed into tribal law. Saskatchewan soon took a substantial lead among the provinces in terms of Indian-run casinos after formation of the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority (SIGA) in January 1996. By year’s end some four First Nations casinos had opened in Saskatchewan (the Bear Claw Casino in White Bear First Nation; the Gold Eagle Casino in North Battleford; the Northern Lights Casino in Prince Albert; and the Painted Hand Casino in Yorkton) which are still going strong 20 years later.
Thanks to SIGA’s overseeing of First Nations casinos in Saskatchewan, another five gaming houses were opened in the province in Canada’s second casino-building boom of 2005-2007. As charitable casinos, all profits are put back into public funds, including the First Nations Trust, Saskatchewan’s Community Development Corporations and general revenues for the provincial government. Among players, SIGA casinos remain popular thanks to the strength of the network: Progressive jackpots are tied into several interlinked casinos and thus may offer huge payouts rarely available in Canada, while musical entertainment tends to tour each SIGA location in turn.
But Saskatchewan’s success is only the beginning of the story for Canada’s Indian-run casinos; as all casinos in the province are “charity casinos,” these are smaller gaming rooms typically holding 500 slot machines max and little in the way of poker or sportsbook betting. Elsewhere in the country, First Nations casinos are more prolific and, let’s face it, bigger.
According to statistics from year-end 2015, Saskatchewan places just third in terms of profits derived from Indian-run casinos: Alberta and Ontario top this list, with Nova Scotia, Manitoba and British Columbia trailing. Alberta’s placement at the top is hardly surprising, as this province currently hosts 27 gambling spots, including five Indian-run casinos. And with just about half of all outlets based in Calgary or Edmonton, the odds are high that if you’re gambling in Alberta outside the two big cities, you’re probably playing at a First Nations casino.
The largest Indian-run casino within Alberta province is the River Cree Resort and Casino outside of Edmonton. Beyond the 1,000 slot machines, 40 table games, poker room and OTB/sports betting facilities, River Cree is definitely notable for its two NHL-sized hockey rinks, often home to Edmonton Oilers practice sessions. Considering the situation of Indian-run casinos in Ontario, though, gets a little bizarre – and reveals perhaps the most successful First Nations casino venture in all of North America…
Ontario boasts about 30 casinos, thereby giving it the most gambling sites in all of Canada’s provinces. Combined with the fact that one-quarter of the 634 recognised First Nations governments as of January 2016 are based in Ontario, you’d figure that Indian-run casinos in Ontario are rife.
Well, not so much. Just three Indian-run casinos do business in Ontario, and all three were opened in the 1990s: These are the aforementioned Gold Eagle, the Great Blue Heron Casino and Casino Rama.
To call Casino Rama a behemoth among First Nations casinos – or even Canadian casinos – would be a serious understatement. Upon its grand opening in 1996, the Rama was instantly recognized as Canada’s second-largest casino – behind only the Casino de Montreal – and stayed so until the Niagara Fallsview opened 10 years later. Still, claiming status as the biggest Canadian casino west of Ottawa is none too shabby.
How big is it? The Casino Rama boasts nearly 200,000 square feet alone for its gaming area, which includes 2,500 slot machines and 110 table games. And the complex includes some 10 restaurants plus a venue for musical acts, comedy shows and mixed martial arts events.
In the first 20 years of its existence, Casino Rama has netted an incredible $5.2 billion in gross revenue; some 35% of profits are invested back into the Rama reservation. And today, Casino Rama can take pride in employing more Natives on a single site than any company in Canada, with over 500 First Nations peoples listed among the employee roll of approximately 3,000.
Other First Nations casinos in Canada not mentioned above include the Aseneskak Casino in Opaskwayak, Manitoba; Casino Dene in Cold Lake, Alberta; the Casino of the Rockies in Cranbrook, British Columbia; the Dakota Dunes Casino in Whitecap, Saskatchewan; the Eagle River Casino in Whitecourt, Alberta; the Grey Eagle Resort & Casino in Tsuu T'ina, Alberta; the Living Sky Casino in Swift Current,Saskatchewan; the South Beach Casino and Resort in Scanterbury, Manitoba; and the Stoney Nakoda Casino in Kananaskis, Alberta.