First Nation Chief on new Toronto casino: “Our financial health and independence are on the line”

March 18, 2023 5:40 PM
Photo: Courtesy Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation
  • Mark Keast, CDC Gaming Reports
March 18, 2023 5:40 PM

The announcement last week that the new CAD$1 billion Great Canadian Casino Resort Toronto will open its doors this summer was met with a lot of applause by the industry and Ontario folks who appreciate live in-person gambling and Vegas-like casino experiences.

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That level of enthusiasm isn’t matched by the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation (MSIFN), who saw the announcement as a slap in the face, a further sign a “disrespect,” said MSIFN Chief Kelly LaRocca in an interview.

MSIFN opened Great Blue Heron Casino (GBH) in 1997 in nearby Port Perry. It’s operated by Great Canadian Entertainment, the same company that runs Woodbine Casino, which is being expanded into the new Toronto megacasino. The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation took over management of GBH from the First Nation in 2016. Ontario Gaming GTA LP, a partnership between Great Canadian Gaming Corporation (now Great Canadian Entertainment) and Brookfield Business Partners LP, assumed operations and management rights of Great Blue Heron, as well as the OLG slots in Ajax and Woodbine, shortly thereafter.

MSIFN sees what has been happening on the casino scene in the Greater Toronto Area as a gradual chipping away of their market share. To them, the opening of a regulated igaming market in Ontario is wanton disregard for their community by the Ontario government and the crown corporation (OLG). They also cite a lack of attention paid to their facility, which Chief LaRocca claimed lacks the “vibrancy” of the other facilities, especially the $1 billion Toronto casino.

“I suspect we’re an afterthought,” she said.

Counter arguments to that stance include a new 100-room hotel that opened at GBH a few years ago, an expanded gaming area that added table games, slot machines, and sportsbooks built into the facility, plus the fact the expanded Woodbine casino has been in the works for five years.

Still, MSIFN is going to mediation with the government this summer to try to sort it out, re-open the 2016 agreement, and, if MSIFN has its way, make changes to it.

For Chief LaRocca, it’s all very personal. To her, the health of her community is on the line. She said the government has been repeatedly dishonest with First Nation and broke its assurances to protect and modernize Great Blue Heron and operate it in a “comparative manner” to other government casinos in the GTA. Revenue would be provided to MSIFN to support development and services for the First Nation, including the provision of clean drinking water in the community.

CDC Gaming Reports: What are your objectives in raising concerns about the new Toronto casino at Woodbine?

CKL: The new Toronto casino shows a pattern of behavior from the provincial government that in my view is best described as dishonest. We’d call it a pattern of behavior, because that assurance that in part informed our decision to join the agreements with the OLG was already broken when the government built the Pickering casino. The government had to get our consent to build the Pickering casino. We were never asked. We would not have given it. Yet the casino was built anyway. In addition, according to our agreement, the casino in Ajax must close, yet both are open today, significantly impacting the Great Blue Heron Casino.

Now, more money is being used to build additional casinos in the GTA, while all the while the GBH is seemingly by comparison being ignored, and all those decisions greatly impact MSIFN.

CDC Gaming Reports: How much of this comes down to commercial concerns for Great Blue Heron Casino, your concerns about losing market share?

CKL: We are the owners, not the operators, of the Great Blue Heron, therefore we’re not really in a position to discuss the intricacies of market share. But I will say that the gaming market has been flooded with casino expansion since the OLG modernization strategy was implemented and, of course, since the unleashing of igaming, so now there’s less market share to go around more than ever.

GBH is the principal revenue source for our First Nation. The revenue-share agreement that we have with GBH ensures that our members have access to essential services, like healthcare and education. As a further example, we’ve been very successful, after decades of battle, in getting access to clean drinking water largely at our own expense and we pay for that achievement with revenue generated at the casino. In addition to that, we’ve been donating significant sums to non-indigenous communities surrounding our First Nation.

So if GBH ceases to exist, our financial health and independence are very much on the line. All that is the direct consequence of the crown being dishonest with us, violating its constitutional duties and responsibility to advance reconciliation in this country.

CDC Gaming Reports: Ultimately, what do you want to see happen here?

CKL: I would like GBH to not be at a comparative disadvantage to the other casinos. Assurances were made to our community regarding the gaming positions and the casinos within the GTA bundle. The agreement was for the successful operation of GBH, which would have 2,500 slots and 1,200 table positions. The government then built Pickering within 50 kilometers of Great Blue Heron. They kept Casino Ajax open. Now Woodbine is going to be expanded, so the number of gaming positions exceeds the assurances. The appearance and operation of GBH are really in stark contrast to those other casinos so our building lacks parity.

We have had a hotel expansion, though it lacks the appearance and vibrancy of those other facilities and it’s certainly smaller in size. We’re told that there will be entertainment offerings; however, they’re only now starting to come to fruition. I want very much to maintain our current patronage, those who are loyal to GBH and enjoy coming here. I worry about the changing patterns of gaming patrons. In a nutshell, they’ve effectively prioritized other facilities at the expense of GBH.

CDC Gaming Reports: Would a different revenue share help alleviate this?

CKL: I think they need to live up to their responsibilities as the crown and honor the revenue-share agreement that we have. Should there be other avenues to explore, we’re always open in our dealings with the OLG and the provincial government and we’d be open to other considerations. However, it’s imperative that they live up to what was signed.

CDC Gaming Reports: What is the ultimate objective with GBH?

CKL: I would like to see some life breathed back into the facility. It lacks energy compared to the other facilities in the Greater Toronto Area bundle. A lot more could be done with non-gaming-related amenities. And again, it’s going to take some real exploration with OLG, as well as Great Canadian, on what is the art of the possible.

CDC Gaming Reports: How has GBH been performing since COVID?

CKL: I can’t give you any specifics, except to say that we’re not up to our pre-pandemic patronage.

In a statement to CDC Gaming Reports today, OLG wrote, “OLG values its long-standing relationship with the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation (MSIFN) and we are always seeking to build on our shared objectives.  Though expansion of Great Canadian Entertainment’s gaming operations has been visibly in the works for five years, we are committed to working to enhance communications with MSIFN to improve our long-standing relationship. OLG, along with the Ontario government, are committed to working in good faith with MSIFN to resolve the dispute.”