This spring, Quebec’s legislature released its economic plan for the coming year. Buried amidst its 600-plus pages, under the header “Curbing illegal online gambling” was the following paragraph:
For the purpose of curbing illegal online gambling, amendments will be made to the Consumer Protection Act, the Act respecting the Régie des alcools, des courses et des jeux and the Act respecting the Société des loteries du Québec so that Internet service providers are not allowed to provide access to an online gaming and gambling website whose name is on a list of illegal sites drawn up by Loto-Québec.
Loto-Québec is the province’s government-run lottery agency, which also runs the province’s four casinos and an online gaming site called Espacejeux (which translates to “Game-space”). It’s the poor performance of the latter which has prompted this attempt to cut out the competition through legislative means, despite widespread opposition. EspaceJeux offers not only digital lotteries but also online slots, casino games, sports betting and poker, so if the amendments are made as threatened, the list produced by Loto-Québec will likely include not just online casinos, but also all the major poker, sports betting and daily fantasy sports sites as well.
It’s an extremely ill-advised move by the province on several levels. For one thing, it’s pretty unlikely that it will achieve its intended effect of boosting traffic to EspaceJeux, as the offerings there are not equivalent to those of the sites that will be blocked. Someone playing on PokerStars, say, is not going to start playing $2 buy-in, $200 guaranteed tournaments on EspaceJeux when they can no longer access PokerStars; they’re simply going to stop playing online poker. It may even produce the opposite effect of that which is intended if it turns out that many of its current users also play on other sites and end up quitting in protest if and when the ban comes into effect.
More importantly, though, it’s a move that will make a huge number of people angry for a whole variety of reasons, and there’s simply no way that any increase in gambling revenues would cover the resulting legal fees and other economic losses. Let’s run down the list of all the groups that Quebec is going to find itself in trouble with.
Quebec vs. Online Pros
Quebec in general and Montreal specifically are home to a huge number of poker professionals, both online and live. Quebec is one of the most inexpensive places in Canada to live, with average rents being particularly low here, which makes it great for young, aspiring pros relying on an unsteady income from poker. Meanwhile, just off the island is the Kahnawake first nations reservation, home to numerous card rooms including the massive Playground Poker Club, a frequent stop on the World Poker Tour. Naturally, being unable to play online except on a tiny, ring-fenced site is not going to make any of these people very happy.
Now, there’s very little this group can do about it aside from throw its weight behind the inevitable legal challenges which will arise. On the other hand, they can simply leave, and that’s likely what many of them will do. Quebec’s economy has been in dire straits for quite some time now, and even if these players are not paying taxes, nor playing on EspaceJeux as Quebec would like them to, they’re winning money off of people elsewhere in the world, and spending it in Quebec. Losing them is one fairly invisible, yet significant cost of this course of action.
Quebec vs. Canada
The history of relations between the province of Quebec and the country of Canada is long and fraught with endless battles and bad blood, particularly on the subjects of language and Quebec sovereignty. Although the will to separate entirely has been waning in recent years, the province nonetheless continues to attempt to hold as much power and self-direction as it can, and far more than any other province enjoys. Thus, while telecommunications fall under federal jurisdiction, attempting to circumvent that fact by making illegal gaming a “consumer protection” issue is typical of Quebec politics.
Many people commenting on this issue assume that internet censorship of this form is going to face – and fail – a constitutional challenge, but Quebec also has a history of simply ignoring the Constitution when it can. Yes, you can do that in Canada. Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – a part of the Constitution – is known as the “notwithstanding clause,” and it grants the provinces and territories the ability to have their laws explicitly supersede certain rights for a limited time. One of the rights which is open to being overruled in this way is freedom of speech, which seems like one of the more likely avenues to challenging this kind of internet censorship.
Quebec has shown itself to be very willing to invoke the notwithstanding clause in the past, for instance, to prevent its language laws from being ruled unconstitutional. Although it is the Parti Libéral de Québec in power – far less antagonistic to the federal government than the separatist Parti Québecois – it might very well employ the notwithstanding clause in the case of a constitutional challenge to internet censorship if it is really adamant about getting its way. Thus, even if the case went to the Supreme Court, chances are Quebec would still be able to enforce the ban for up to five years, after which the legislature would simply have to vote on whether to re-enact the law for another five. Obviously, this would not go over well with the federal government or the other provinces, but that’s a sort of conflict Quebec tends to relish, often to its own detriment.
Quebec vs. ISPs
Quebec’s internet service providers are going to be in a bit of a pickle if the province orders them to censor gambling websites. If they refuse to comply, the province will no doubt attempt to impose penalties. On the other hand, if they go along with the provincial laws, they may find themselves on the wrong side of the federal Telecommunications Act, as pointed out by Haley Hintze over at FlushDraw. It’s hard to know in advance what these companies will do to extract themselves from such a catch-22, but one way or another, their shareholders are likely to be negatively impacted, and probably their customers as well, which is again not good for the province’s economy.
Quebec vs. Kahnawake
Then there’s Kahnawake. As mentioned above, the first nations reservation lies just off the island of Montreal and uses its sovereignty to engage in a lot of gambling-related activities, just as tribes do elsewhere in Canada and the US. As well as the physical card rooms, though, Kahnawake is home to the Kahnawake Gaming Commission, making it a major player in grey-market online gaming.
Ironically, just as Quebec loves to fly in the face of the federal government, so too are its first nations tribes disinclined to go along with what the province wants, unless there’s something in it for them. Everyone who grew up here in the 80s and 90s remembers the Oka Crisis, in which a land dispute between the town of Oka (under provincial jurisdiction) and the Mohawk community of Kanesatake. Following the courts’ rejection of the tribe’s land claim in 1986, tensions rose steadily until July 1990, at which point provincial police attempted to intervene in a Mohawk protest, leading to a gun battle in which one police officer was killed. A standoff then ensued, which lasted until late September and involved many roads in the area being barricaded, some by the Mohawks, others by the provincial police.
Much of the market for the Mohawk-operated websites is outside of Quebec, so it’s unlikely that simply preventing Quebec users from playing on them will provoke their wrath. However, it may make them nervous that the province would try to block all traffic to and from those sites within the province’s borders, and attempting to shut down their business in that way would almost certainly provoke a response, at the very least in the form of long-term protests.
Quebec vs. me
As for myself, I no longer play poker or gamble online except recreationally, so it wouldn’t pain me too much as a player to lose access to PokerStars and Bet365, the two main sites I frequent. What’s problematic for me, however, is that the province is not just seeking to prevent its citizens from registering on or depositing to the sites in question, but to block the sites entirely at the domain level. That means I won’t, for instance, be able to visit various sites’ blogs, or observe the final tables of major online events, etc. My ability to do research for my articles will be severely limited by such a ban. It may therefore impact my ability to make a living as well, and quite unjustly, as there’s definitely nothing illegal about writing about gambling, unless of course Quebec invokes the notwithstanding clause to outlaw that as well.
Of course, like the poker pros, there’s little I can do about it directly, and if I do leave the province, it probably won’t be for this reason. However, if Quebec does end up going forward with this plan next year, you can expect further articles from me on the subject. And I promise you that they will be worded sternly. Very sternly. You’ve been warned, Quebec.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.