Tuesday November 6 was a very busy day in the news. It was voting day for the US election, Full Tilt Poker re-launched its real-money gaming service, and a controversial casino operator launched First Nations Northern Bear online casino without consent from the Saskatchewan government. As a result, the RCMP has a new case on its hands.
Bernie Shepherd was the architect of the White Bear casino back in 1993, which was met with significant controversy from the Saskatchewan government, and a raid by the RCMP. In the months that followed, negotiations ironed out a deal for First Nations communities to operate casinos on their reserves, and revenues would be used to support First Nations across the province.
But Shepherd argues much of that business has been lost to online gambling, which he describes as a multimillion dollar industry. He says it is time for First Nations communities to get a piece of those profits, which he says was the reasoning behind the Northern Bear online casino launch. However, under that same gambling deal Shepherd himself helped orchestrate, the law says he needs the provincial government to approve of the venture before an official launch. Shepherd admits he did not wait for that approval, and is not afraid to take the law on.
“We have inherent rights, treaty rights and constitutional rights. In our minds, this is legal.”
The controversy surrounding Northern Bear is emphasized by Saskatchewan’s decision not to regulate provincial online gambling sites. Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority minister Donna Harpauer said on November 5 that various government officials had raised alarm bells surrounding online problem gambling. Harpauer was asked about Shepherd and Northern Bear, but refused to comment while the investigation was underway.
The government may find shutting down Northern Bear is not an easy task because it is not the first case. Gambling law expert Cookie Lazarus says First Nations communities in Quebec have been successfully operating online casinos for years. Shepherd bet on the casino stirring up controversy, but he may have to start playing his cards close to the chest.