Was Racism Responsible For Saskatoon Missing Out On A Casino

On October 22, 2003 the Saskatoon city council voted down a proposal to develop a First Nations-run casino in the city.  The campaign on the motion was very divisive for the community, and resulted in what many city councilors described as racist opposition to the casino proposal.

Ten years later, the central players in the proposal reflect that the vote to strike the motion down cost the city economically.  Due to the motion’s defeat, the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Association (SIGA), the chief proponents for the casino, instead built the Dakota Dunes Casino on First Nations land south of the city.

The result of a casino near the city but not part of the city was a mixed bag for Saskatoon.  Rather than place bets at a Saskatoon casino, where the city would receive a significant share of gaming revenue, city residents travelled south to the Dakota Dunes venue, and consequently took money out of the Saskatoon economy.

SIGA’s proposal in 2003 was for a three-story casino that would invest over $65 million into Saskatoon, and create an estimated 700 jobs associated with the gambling facility.  The proposal was supported by the city of commerce, the tourist department, and several members of city council – including then Mayor Jim Maddin, who ultimately lost the municipal election over the issue.

The casino became crucial to the 2003 election, where mayoral candidates expressed their firm support or opposition to the proposal.  One candidate, Jim Pankiw, was staunchly against the casino, and made what many commentators described as racist remarks directed to First Nations people in his speeches against an “Indian-run casino.”

Councilor Tiffany Paulsen, who is one of the few councilors in 2003 to still serve on council today, says she regrets that perceived racism distracted the city from reasonable discussion involving the casino – of which she supported.

Gambling is a legal activity, and I wanted to see increased employment in the First Nations community.”

The defeat of the proposal marked the second time Saskatoon rejected a downtown casino.  Paulsen and other current councilors believe a third referendum today is very unlikely given the scarring history of past proposals.

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