Guest Commentary

Senator Grant Mitchell

The Rink That Ruined A Life

I don’t want my child skating on a rink that ruined somebody’s life.

In my province, gross profits from video lottery terminals are $492,000,000 a year.  The proceeds fund community projects like arenas. Isn’t this an implicit acknowledgment there is something wrong with profiting from VLTs? We can only justify it if the money is used for particularly worthy causes.

As a boy in Shilo, Manitoba, I recall neighbours buying Irish Sweepstakes tickets. People were enthralled with the idea of winning the prize, though it was illegal in Canada then. That was my introduction to gaming.

I’m no gambler – though there are those who’d say running for public office in Alberta as a Liberal in 1986 takes a gambling streak. I am no good at cards. Out of university, my friends invited me to poker nights, but stopped after two sessions. I was such a poor card player they didn’t even want my money. I’ve never been to Las Vegas. I have never used a VLT. I went to a horse track – once. I find casinos uninteresting. My wife Teresa and I buy a lottery ticket once every four years.

I understand the compelling entertainment feature of lotteries. For $10 you buy a few days’ worth of dreams.  You can spend $10 on hamburgers and fries, and that’s value, too.

There is a philosophical principle we share: government must be careful in how it limits choice. I have a right to gamble if I want to gamble; I even have a right to go bankrupt doing it. The government cannot tell me not to hurt myself.  It isn’t unreasonable that government would allow gaming, and it’s good they regulate it.

But –

There is something pernicious about VLTs.

They are addictive.

They damage families.

There is ample evidence they are linked to suicide.

I’ve seen VLT lounges where customers sit by these machines, numb to their surroundings, obsessively pushing buttons. I would do away with VLTs. As Alberta Liberal leader in 1997 I campaigned on just such a pledge; we polled 33 percent in a province some saw as devoid of Liberal support.

In my political life I’ve always been motivated by the idea we have in our society an obligation to our neighbours.  In Canada we’ve built that wonderful society, in part, by fairly paying taxes that have generally been well-spent.  Now VLT revenues displace proportional taxation with a special tax on vulnerable people, with terrible effect.

In the 1990s we saw the emergence of dialogue on “family values.”

I have a question: If Canadians believe in family values, what is our obligation to neighbours whose families are destroyed by a VLT addiction that is beyond their control? Do we support family values or don’t we?

We can’t have it both ways.

[Editor’s note: the author is a former leader of the Alberta Liberal Party, and now deputy chair of the Senate energy committee]

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