A South Surrey casino

South Surrey a ‘prime’ site for aboriginal casino

First Nations to challenge province's gambling monopoly

First Nations are vowing to open their own casinos in B.C., citing the province’s refusal to share its gambling profits while continuing to expand the industry.

Reserve land in Surrey, Vancouver and the North Shore would be prime potential sites for a new aboriginal-owned casino in the Lower Mainland, according to Sto:lo Grand Chief Joe Hall, who heads the First Nations Gaming Initiative spearheading the concept.

Hall said the Semiahmoo First Nation reserve east of the White Rock waterfront would be perfect.

“It would be a prime location,” he said. “Because of the population and the location and because of the American traffic and the traffic from the Island that goes east.”

Hall said the Semiahmoo band has considered building a hotel/conference centre that might also host a casino, but approval of a proposed 600-slot casino nearby in South Surrey would torpedo the band’s chances.

“I understood they were pursuing that but there was no consultation with their community at all. So they were basically shut out.”

Another option may be Katzie First Nation land near Fort Langley, Hall said.

The South Surrey casino/convention centre proposed by Gateway Casinos and Entertainment is just the latest irritant for aboriginal leaders, who have for years asked the province for a two to three per cent share of the $1.1 billion in annual profits B.C. reaps from gambling.

Hall said the Sto:lo are unhappy they’ll get no benefit from a newly opened community gaming centre with slot machines in Chilliwack that replaces an old bingo hall.

Similar mini-casinos have also sprung up in recent years in Abbotsford, Mission and Langley without contributing to local First Nations, he noted.

“The one in Chilliwack is very disturbing because it’s built on former reserve land that used to belong to the Ch’ihl’kway’uhk people.”

He expects B.C. native groups will have to follow the lead of those in other provinces and open casinos in defiance of the law and battle the government in court for either the power to operate or for a share of existing revenues.

“We’ve attempted to go through the front door, but enough’s enough,” Hall said.

He accused the province of “racing” to add new casinos ahead of First Nations.

“There won’t be any market left for First Nations,” Hall said. “That’s why we have to escalate our efforts here to move forward.”

Vancouver-area bands control land in Point Grey and on southwest False Creek.

The North Shore has previously been flagged by the B.C. Lottery Corp. as the most populous part of B.C. still not served by casino facilities.

Hall agreed possible sites there could range from Tsleil Waututh reserves in North Vancouver to the Squamish Nation’s Park Royal Mall site in West Vancouver.

A Nov. 9 letter from Hall and the First Nations Gaming Initiative to Premier Christy Clark accuses the government of “deliberate and systematic exclusion” of First Nations from gambling revenue and outlined their new strategy.

It warns aboriginal groups in B.C. will consider legal challenges to new casino projects, will be more publicly vocal in opposing them and make the government’s “discriminatory practices” an election issue this spring.

Hall said the next steps will be for B.C. aboriginal leaders with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, Assembly of First Nations and First Nations Summit to jointly agree to form an aboriginal gaming commission for B.C. to regulate native casino development and name an advisory council of experts in First Nations gaming from elsewhere in Canada.

Revenue from a casino would be shared with all First Nations in B.C., he said, adding the host band would get a larger share.

“We’re doing this in a very careful, structured manner,” he said.

Gambling revenue could offset the impacts on bands from government cuts and perhaps buy medical equipment or upgrade needed infrastructure.

Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for gaming, was unavailable for comment.

But a ministry spokesperson said First Nations can host casinos or community gaming centres on reserve and get the same 10 per cent share of profits as a hosting municipality.

Three First Nations host gaming facilities and received a combined $2 million last year from community gaming centres in Squamish and Cowichan and the Casino of the Rockies run by the Ktunuxa/Kinbasket Tribal Council in the Kootenays.

See related story: Semiahmoo band hasn’t proposed casino but willing to talk

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