Third reading of Bill C-218, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (sports betting)

By: The Hon. Peter Harder

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Ceremonial Guard on Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Hon. Peter Harder: Honourable senators, five short years from now soccer fans from around the world will stream into Canada carrying their countries’ hopes in a sporting event only second to the Olympics in popularity. The FIFA World Cup of soccer, which Canada will jointly host with the United States and Mexico in 2026, will be a showpiece for our country as it has been for other hosts. It has also generated billions of dollars in economic output for previous host nations. As we all know, money can also attract unscrupulous actors who exploit events through cheating and, in the case of sports, manipulating the games themselves. What a shame it would be if something like this were to mar the World Cup here in Canada. It is, however, a possibility that experts say we must work to avoid.

It has relevance for the bill we are debating today, which would allow Canadians to bet single-game sports. Let me begin by saying that I support the intent of this bill. I believe it is in some sense inevitable, given that Canadian betting dollars are and will be moving to other jurisdictions that are more advanced than ours on issues involving sports betting.

It is also a measure that, if done probably, will aid many sporting organizations across our country, and they need help. But I do have some concerns, chief among them the prospect of match fixing. In a white paper produced in October 2019 by a national symposium on the subject, authors warned that rapid changes in technology and growing popularity of online gambling platforms present an increased threat of match manipulation in Canada. Further, attempts to corrupt athletes are on the rise. The white paper stated, “This threat has the potential to cause severe damage to the integrity of Canada’s most beloved sports.” Hockey to the Canadian Football League, as well as many other sports, were identified as being at risk.

It goes on to say:

With Canada’s co-hosting of the United 2026 FIFA World Cup, it is urgent for government to address this issue or risk reputational damage.

That would be commensurate with the Ben Johnson saga. Furthermore:

While Canada is now regarded as a leader in the global anti-doping movement, we must now take a more proactive stance regarding match manipulation.

Ben Johnson, as you may recall, was the Canadian sprinter caught using banned substances during the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. It took us a long time to recover from the hits taken to our reputation for fair play. As mentioned, I believe in the intent of this bill, but I would add two cautions.

First, the bill should require agreements between the provincial gaming bodies and the various sporting organizations allowing for the use of the organizations’ matches in the betting scheme.

Second, we must eventually deal with the aforementioned match fixing. While the fixing of matches of big-league sports often grab large headlines, in many ways it is in the lower leagues and among those who receive the least pay where the practice is more acute and more at risk.

We have all, for example, read accounts of the needy college athlete, particularly in the United States, who receives no compensation for taking part in sports competitions and is eventually bribed to provide tips about a team’s strategy or to blow a game. These are not behaviours distinct to our neighbours. It happens here too.

In 2015, for instance, it was revealed by a report in a British newspaper that each of the 12 teams comprising the Canadian Soccer League had been involved in some sort of match fixing on at least three occasions. In another story, the CBC reported in 2012 that a player in the same league accepted a bribe to fix a match in 2009.

These sorts of actions lead to a feeling of betrayal among sports supporters. If single-game betting is allowed without the issue of match manipulation being addressed, it also risks dissuading individuals who want to lay bets in the first place. Why bother if you can’t trust that the dice aren’t loaded?

Unlike the United States, Canada currently allows only for parlay betting, under which bettors must pick two or more winners to collect on the win. In single-game betting, the player only has to bet on one game, meaning a fixer has to successfully manipulate only one game or one portion of a game.

Sports integrity experts offer many ways in which potential abuses can be dealt with, including the call for the establishment of a federal commission; better education for athletes, coaches, officials and sporting organizations; and the creation of an independent sport integrity unit for Canada.

Another recommendation of the symposium cited earlier is that Canada become a signatory to the Council of Europe Convention on the Manipulation of Sports Competitions. This, I believe, is a measure we should support.

The aim of this multilateral treaty is simple. It is to prevent, detect and punish match fixing. It is a key tool and guide which provides a structure that allows signatories to better align efforts and coordinate their actions to combat match manipulation. These acts include coordination between international activities and projects; assistance and consultancy to public authorities; and thematic debates related to governments, gaming and lottery officials, law enforcement and sporting organizations and others. It has been signed and/or ratified by 37 countries, but not Canada.

Given the need to protect Canada’s integrity as a sporting nation, as well as citizens who will take part in this new activity, I would strongly agree with the observation put forward by the Standing Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce that the government be encouraged to sign the Council of Europe Convention on the Manipulation of Sports Competitions. I thank Senators Klyne and Cotter for ensuring that such observations are strongly made in the report from the committee that is before this chamber. I speak tonight to underscore this observation in the hopes that the government will act on it upon the Royal Assent of this legislation.

Thank you.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.

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