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Quebec’s New Online Gambling Law is Pissing Off Indigenous Groups and Net Neutrality Advocates

Mohawk First Nation argues territorial rights extend to cyberspace.

by Brigitte Noël
Jun 29 2016, 5:07pm

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard with a beard and a book. Photo via Facebook.

A Mohawk community in Quebec is gearing up to fight the provincial government over an unprecedented new law that gives government the power to block private gambling websites. It's a legal framework that is proving problematic not only in terms of net neutrality, but also for Indigenous groups who claim that it violates their territorial rights.

Quietly adopted in May 2016, Bill 74 is the provincial Liberal party's response to what it says is a proliferation of private gambling sites. Finance minister Carlos Leitao, who presented the bill, said these 2,000 or so "illegal" websites had cost Loto-Québec—the state-owned gaming conglomerate—upwards of $200 million dollars in lost revenue.

The law would force internet service providers to block these sites, effectively granting Loto-Québec a complete monopoly over online gambling (and its associated profits) in the province.

It's a move that's been heavily criticized by net neutrality proponents who say this type of control creates a dangerous precedent. "I think the (Quebec) government doesn't understand the Internet and frankly doesn't understand the importance of an open and free Internet," online-law expert Michael Geist told CP earlier this year. "Quebec is [...] seeking to censor the Internet for its own commercial gain by ordering Internet providers to block access to any unregulated sites," he added on his blog.

For a Montreal-area reserve however, the proposed legislation also represents an attack on First Nation sovereignty.

Since 1996, the Kahnawake Gaming Commission has managed its own online gambling empire, a repository of about 90 websites they license and regulate. "We've been in operation for many years under our own jurisdiction, Quebec has never challenged that, and now they create a law that will impact that," Kahnawake Council Chief Gina Deer told VICE. "It's very sad for us to see."

Deer says the government doesn't seem to realize the financial impact the implementation of this law would have for community, a loss she said would be in the millions of dollars.

"To us, it's a direct impact, and the government doesn't seem to realize that. They say they created this law to ensure their citizens are protected from unregulated and offshore gaming activity, but we don't even fall in that category. We are not offshore, we are not unregulated," Deer said. "Why isn't there accomodation for us and our licensees?"

Deer says this program falls under Mohawk jurisdiction and is thus a question of independence. "We have a full history dating back before pre-contact that we've conducted gaming not just for entertainment but wager purposes, so it's not like it's an activity we hadn't been doing pre-contact," Deer said. " For us it's very disheartening to see these sort of laws being created and no consultation or no accommodations for First Nations—especially Kahnawake—when they know how heavily we are involved in the industry."

For now, the Kahnawake Mohawk Council is favouring political solutions rather than legal recourses, and Deer said Grand Chief Joe Norton has reached out to the Quebec government to schedule a meeting. She said other organizations have also contacted the Council to express solidarity or to discuss possible alliances.

Online, the revolt against Bill 74 has come from several directions, from defenders of freedom of expression to the ISP companies themselves, the latter decrying the law's outrageous costs and complicated implementation.

"We'll see what happens after the summer," Deer said. "But if it's not challenged by other groups, I'll be surprised. It infringes on the rights of every individual, and gaming is probably going to be the first thing [the government] will regulate. Who knows where it will come to."

This apprehension might however end up being for naught. Regulating the online world (or ensuring a lack thereof) falls under the purview of the federal government via the CRTC, which means the Trudeau government (who has so far been pretty mum on the net neutrality debate) could be the first to stand up to Quebec. VICE did not immediately hear back from the Heritage department for this story.

Deer is pleased with this unlikely ally. "That's the first time in recent history where we're really falling on the same page."

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