Why Are Casinos on Indian Reservations in Canada? Understanding the Historical, Economic and Cultural Context of Indigenous Gaming

Why Are Casinos on Indian Reservations in Canada?

For many Canadians, a visit to a casino signals an opportunity to get away from it all and try their luck at a game of chance. Casinos have become a staple of the entertainment industry, providing patrons with a wide array of gaming options, luxurious amenities, restaurants, and theaters. However, the history of casinos on Indian reservations in Canada speaks to a more significant story. This article seeks to understand why casinos are on Indian reservations in Canada and explore the impact of such casinos on the Indigenous communities.

Historical Perspective

First off, the treaties and agreements that gave First Nations in Canada the right to operate casinos on their reservations form the historical context for the Indian Gaming Industry. These treaties are mainly based on revenue-sharing arrangements reached between Indigenous governments and the federal and provincial governments. In the early 1980s, the notion of owning and operating a casino on an Indian reservation was still in its infancy, but some communities were already exploring the potential for revenue-generating casino activity. In 1985, the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority (SIGA) opened the first Indigenous-owned and operated casino in Canada — the White Bear Casino — signaling growth for the Indian gaming industry.

Furthermore, the social and economic factors that led to the development of the Indian Gaming Industry need to be explored. Many Indigenous communities have been grappling with poverty, unemployment, and a lack of economic development opportunities for decades. The introduction of casinos offered a new revenue stream, opening up new prospects for self-determination and economic independence. Building a casino on Indigenous land proved to be not only a symbol of Indigenous sovereignty but also offered an opportunity for nation-building, political autonomy, and self-governance.

Economic Impact

The impact of casinos on Indian reservations in Canada has been vast. Indigenous-owned casinos generated over $3 billion in revenue in 2019, with roughly 37 casinos operating across the country. Given the exclusivity of operating a casino on Indian land, these casinos require patrons to travel further distances than they might otherwise. As a result, the casinos generate more revenue than non-Indigenous casinos, not to mention the fact that their revenues are not subject to taxes that non-Indigenous casinos are obliged to pay.

One of the most significant benefits of Indigenous casinos is that they have invested their profits into the community to improve the quality of life for Indigenous Canadians. Social programs, such as education, healthcare, and infrastructure, have been funded by casino revenues, leading to improved living standards in the surrounding areas. An example of this is the SIGA’s Community Development Trust program that provides benefits to First Nations in Saskatchewan. In the program, a percentage of net revenues is invested directly into the community. The funding is allocated to various projects such as housing, scholarships, health services, community centers, infrastructure, and language preservation.

Regulatory Environment

The regulatory framework that governs casinos on Indian reservations in Canada is complex. The federal government oversees the Indian Gaming Industry, while provinces have sweepingly delegated responsibility for overseeing the sector to individual First Nations communities. In each province, Indigenous communities enter into a revenue-sharing agreement with the provincial government, which delineates the types of games casinos can offer, licensing, taxation, and the revenue split between the province and the Indigenous community.

The regulatory environment has faced challenges and caused controversy in Canada. Critics have voiced concerns about gambling addiction, unfair taxation, and insufficient regulation of gaming activity. Despite such issues, many Indigenous communities see casinos as a way to generate revenue and create job prospects without hurting the environment.

Cultural Context

Casinos have become important cultural centers that celebrate Indigenous traditions and provide a space for the community to come together. Besides creating a unique cultural identity, the casinos have provided an opportunity to preserve and promote Aboriginal culture. For many Indigenous communities, gaming is seen as a legitimate method of revenue generation and a way to attract tourists to their region. Indigenous culture is inextricably linked to the connection with the land, animals, and spirits, and so casinos provide an opportunity to express a sense of sovereignty over the land.

Community Perspectives

Indigenous communities view casinos as a way to strengthen their economic position. In addition, they are seen as a way to promote community development, revitalize languages and culture, enhance social services, and promote self-determination. Success stories such as the Whitecap Dakota First Nation, who operates the Dakota Dunes Resort and Casino, are testaments to the potential benefits of such enterprises. The community sees the resort and casino as an opportunity to create a thriving community and attract people from around the world to share Indigenous culture.


The history of casinos on Indian reservations in Canada provides us with insights into the complex issues surrounding the Indian Gaming Industry. The socio-economic, regulatory, and cultural context for Native gaming activity has shown that while they have their share of challenges, the casinos have provided many benefits to Indigenous communities. Understanding these issues is critical as the need for continued dialogue and collaboration between Indigenous communities and government regulatory bodies is essential for ensuring the long-term sustainability of the Indian Gaming Industry and the preservation of Indigenous culture and sovereignty.

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