Wanna bet?
When governments run short of money
they turn to gambling. Will NWT be next?

by Marty Brown
Northern News Services

NNSL (Mar 03/97) - Before gamblers in the Northwest Territories even got a chance to try video lottery terminals, they're being closed down in the south.

Rocky Mountain House, Alta., a logging town of 6,000, voted by a margin of two to one to get rid of VLTs last week.

There were 38 terminals in the small town but religious leaders were concerned about the addictive nature of the terminals and the effects of gambling in general.

Although Premier Ralph Klein promised to remove the machines from the town seven days after the town council confirmed the vote, bar owners are considering going to court to halt the removal of the machines.

Fears on both sides of the debate rest on money.

For one thing, Albertans spent $427 million on 5,586 VLTs in 1995.

Since all provinces and territories are strapped for cash trying to keep their social programs while paying off debt, what are the chances of VLTs coming north of 60?

The national experience is a mixed bag. British Columbia doesn't have any, but Newfoundland has 2,200 terminals and says there's no problem.

Saskatchewan has laws that only remote communities in the North can vote on whether they want the VLTs or not. But when resident in La Ronge wanted to ban them, they were told that community wasn't remote enough.

The machines have been referred to as the crack cocaine of gambling, implying that VLTs are more addictive than other forms of gambling, But Christian Marfels of Dalhousie University, an economist who conducted a study of VLT gaming, says VLTs provide "casual play in a casual atmosphere." He called them "great entertainment at low cost ... play is unintimidating and straightforward," he said.

And VLTs aren't gaming tables or exactly the same as slot machines. Gamblers play a hand of cards against a machine for 25 cents a play, with a maximum jackpot of $1,000. In most cases winners get a printed ticket they must redeem for cash, not an instant flow of coins.

In most jurisdictions, VLTs are allowed only in age-controlled premises such as charity casinos, bars and taverns.

There's only six communities with bars in the NWT.

"As a bar owner, I'd love VLTs. As a responsible bar owner -- no way," says Val Elliott, owner of the Rayuka Inn in Norman Wells. "There's enough gambling in the North without adding commercial outlets. There's enough problems with alcohol."

Diane Webb, manager at the Navigator Hotel in Iqaluit, agrees. She wouldn't install VLTs if she could because she'd have no control over them.

"Drinkers are limited to four drinks in our lounge. With gamblers, how do you know if they've still enough money in their pockets to feed their kids?" she says. "Gambling is just one of our problems, but it just isn't in the North."

Paster Glen Wallington with the Hay River Baptist Church says VLTs are just another means of gambling, another way of dragging poor people down.

"It doesn't matter what the addiction -- families get hurt and gambling is an addiction," he said. "Look at the harm done by regular lotteries. VLTs would be worse."