Can You Gamble Online in Canada?

Online gambling has become a big business in Canada.  There are a ton of sites open to Canadian players.  Most are licensed and operating within the legal limits of the country they are licensed in.  Just because a site allows Canadian players doesn’t mean it’s licensed in Canada.  What are the legalities of gambling online in Canada?  Is it legal?

A “legal grey area.”

In Canada, online gambling falls into what is referred to as a “legal grey area.”  It’s not illegal, but it’s clearly legal either.

The law hasn’t quite caught up with the ever-expanding technology of online commerce and gaming.  It isn’t just online activity, either.  Whether it’s Uber, file sharing, online gambling sites licensed offshore, or remote work, there isn’t a clear set of laws outlining what is and isn’t ok.

Gambling in Canada falls under provincial legislation.  The grey area results from the fact that the activity is online, meaning the internet doesn’t care about provincial boundaries.  It doesn’t care for international boundaries either.  Online gambling sites are based in jurisdictions like Gibraltar, Cyprus, or the Isle of Man, where governments have open gambling rules, and relatively few tax laws are imposed on the sites themselves.

There’s nothing inside Canada’s criminal code to suggest that it’s illegal to make a bet on an offshore site.  So, if you’re playing in an online casino in Canada with real money, you’re not breaking the law.

Provincial authority over gambling

There’s no issue with placing a bet with an offshore gambling site, but are there legal ramifications for the casino operators themselves?

If you take the “online” part out of the equation, the rules for casino operators are very clear.  Each province lays out the rules for gambling, including casinos, lotteries, and bingo.  Horse racing is the only exception to this, as it falls under a unit in the federal agriculture department, so we won’t talk about that here.

All the provinces in Canada, except Saskatchewan, have moved into the online gambling sector.  B.C. has offered online sports betting and lottery tickets since 2004 and has since added bingo and casino games.  Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta joined the fold in 2015, with the Maritime provinces only offering lottery tickets and bingo, but not casino games.  Here’s the catch – for the most part, bets are restricted from being placed outside of the province.

The provinces regulate gambling activity within the province itself, but there is uncertainty about what is prohibited when it comes to offshore casinos conducting business with Canadians.  The Criminal Code doesn’t address it.

A 2001 court case in the B.C. Supreme Court made the area even greyer.  Starnet Communications International held a gambling license in Antigua but also had an office in Vancouver.  Courts found that a Canadian-based site could not legally accept bets from Canadians.

Offshore casino operators

For offshore casino operators who have no physical presence in Canada, the legalities of their operations are uncertain.   There are connections to Canadian laws on privacy protection, copyright infringements, and other sections of the Canadian Criminal Code, but thus far, there are no specific laws prohibiting Canadians from placing bets on offshore casino sites.

If an offshore site does business in Canada through advertising, contracting, and accepting bets from Canadian players, they will fall under Canadian jurisdiction.  Since the laws vary among the provinces, these sites are potentially breaking laws every day.

At the time of this writing, no enforcement action has been taken against an offshore online casino and no indication that Canada intends to do so.

Final thoughts

If you are a Canadian gambler who enjoys online casinos, rest assured.  Any laws being broken will require enforcement on the part of the casino operators rather than Canadians placing bets.  So far, the RCMP is preoccupied with things like drugs, terrorism, and gang activity rather than online gambling. However, as more provinces develop specific laws regarding online gambling, it’s likely that this “grey area” will become more black and white over time.

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