A Perspective On The History Of Gaming Funding For The Arts

By Lydia Marston-Blaauw: I just read the announcement of the Alliance’s call for restoration of gaming funds and want to point out an error.  As I was already working in the arts when gaming came into the province I remember it all quite well.

Firstly, the “social contract” referred to in this announcement was not crafted when the government proposed to expand gaming.  In fact, when gaming was first introduced (it was the lotteries at that time) the government of the day sold it to the public as a fund strictly for the arts and sports. 

I believe the legislation said just that. 

The funds from lotteries proved to be so huge that they could barely spend it all or spend it fast enough. I remember the Lotteries Commission spending lavishly on shows – we rented our theatres to them so people could come and watch the draws live. Those working at Lotteries were practically breathless with the excitement. Everyone seemed gobsmacked at how the cash was pouring in. The granting programs were not innovative enough or visionary enough to keep up with the revenues. Everyone, from the cultural and sports sectors to lotteries itself were still thinking small potatoes, tiny projects, lean times.

Secondly, some years later, rather than fix the granting system and create policy around the funds (it could have been used for much needed infrastructure for instance) the government decided to pull a big part of the funds raised through lotteries into general revenue. 

There would be no problem making enormous numbers of dollars disappear there. They also expanded the types of not-for profits to which Lotteries could allocate the funds that remained. 

I found it interesting at the time that the sports and arts community did not mount any kind of protest or legal challenge to these changes.  It stands out in my mind because I spoke to several colleagues in municipal government who had a huge stake in the sports sector – recreation being such a massive part of most municipal costs. 

My argument was that if we allowed this change in the social contract to go unchallenged; if we allowed this normalization of lotteries funds as general revenue with no specific goals being set for spending the money, eventually the government would keep more and more of it.  Stands to reason that they would. And so it turned out. I always hated being right in my predictions about this.

Everyone I spoke to at the time was “too busy” to mount any kind of a challenge and everyone seemed to think that there would be plenty of lottery funds still to go around. They trusted the government to “do the right thing”.   

The rest of gaming history is simple.They legalized casino gambling, as a non-profit serving source of funds, and finally they scooped that too so it was all government  gambling, all the time. Right down to slot machines, online poker and baccarat. That’s the “gaming expansion” that ‘youngsters’ like Alliance executive director Amir Ali Alibhai are pointing to. That’s when everyone had to go cap-in-hand to ask for a bit of the fund.

We tolerated the erosion but we can’t tolerate being cut off entirely.  We’re finally challenging that the arts are not even allowed to go cap-in-hand -- that arts organizations are not allowed to ask for any funds. I hope it’s not too late and that this challenge meets with success.

I must say, even on my most pessimistic days I did not expect them ever to keep all of the gaming funds. I thought there would always be a remnant, no matter how paltry, that would go to the creative sector that needs it so much. I thought the original purpose – to support arts, culture and sports – would be maintained. 

But people forget; and people stop caring about why and how things like gaming came to be part of our lives. 

The original promise was broken because we didn’t hold government to it. We didn’t negotiate hard for an appropriate social contract when they started to sneak off with some of the money. Once the original promise was broken it became easier for government to break subsequent promises.  After all, even many politicians are too young to remember how it all started.

Now gambling has become a social norm and politicians no longer need a “good cause” to justify what used to be a criminal activity.

I’m glad we’re finally fighting to maintain some part of the original promise made to our sector. After all, our good reputation and “brand” was used to sell gaming to BC.  We need to remember the facts so we can be accurate about what really happened. The arts and the non-profit sector should not have to justify themselves, but the government sure does.

Lydia Marston-Blaauw
Lydia Marston-Blaauw & Associates
Professional Arts and Cultural Consultancy


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