David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Despite the Disconnects, I'll Vote 'Yes'

Brandon Sun, March 8, 2008 - David McConkey

I can’t resist getting into the casino debate. Call it an urge, a curiosity, a desire to take a risk. Just don’t call it an addiction.

In the last Brandon casino plebiscite, I voted “no.” I was influenced by a visit to a casino I had made shortly before. I was in south-eastern Saskatchewan and I stopped by the Bear Claw Casino.

I was surprised at how depressed everyone looked. Older women were the main patrons. What happened to grandmas baking cookies for their grandkids, or joining the “Raging Grannies”?

Unhappy gamblers aren’t usually a topic of polite discussion, though. We tend to overlook the actual casino customers.

We would like to imagine a picture like that photo on the front page of a recent Brandon Sun. Joyful young people at the casino in Moose Jaw. But that photo wasn’t one of real gamblers. Check the caption. “Submitted.” In other words, faked. (Casinos typically don’t let reporters take photographs inside their premises.)

The thought of miserable gamblers is one of several disconnects for me with the whole casino prospect.

Another disconnect is that the provincial government and community leaders want to link First Nations economic development with gambling. For a population already burdened with addictions, couldn’t there be other options?

How about enterprises that are not so depressing, not prone to addictions, and not requiring racially divisive plebiscites?

How about ventures in health care, education, renewable energy, affordable housing, environmental protection, or cultural activities that celebrate the heritage of First Nations?

Yet another disconnect is the uncertainty surrounding the casino proposal.

The concept of an urban reserve (which many expect will follow) especially demands a much fuller explanation.

Unfortunately, community leaders must undo the generally negative impression of “reserve” that has been created in the public’s mind by many stories in the regular media.

A further disconnect is the poor selling job done by the proponents of the casino. Virtually nothing in the way of general public meetings or printed materials; no website for more information. The entire effort could be a text book example of how not to actively inform and engage the citizens.

There is a strange emptiness to the whole proposition.

“It’s time to come to the table and start working with aboriginal people,” one spokesperson is quoted at the kick-off event of the Yes Campaign.

Yet it appeared as though no First Nations representatives were actually there.

Both the Chamber of Commerce full page newspaper ad and the Yes Campaign brochure quote a broad range of community leaders supporting the casino: business, labour, NDP, Conservative.

But, surprisingly, no First Nations leaders are quoted. The words “aboriginal” or “First Nations” (never mind “urban reserve”) are nowhere to be seen.

I think that the Chamber of Commerce / Yes Campaign have missed a crucial opportunity here by not acknowledging that the casino would be a First Nations development.

First, the casino should have been promoted as a way to bring aboriginal and non-aboriginal together. Second, First Nations people should have been included as part of the so-called “diverse” community leadership in favour of the project. Finally, there should have been clarity rather than raise suspicion that there is a hidden agenda about an urban reserve.

Yet there is an argument that trumps all debate. A casino is coming to Westman anyway. Vote “yes” and we can make sure that Brandon, specifically downtown, be considered.

So, despite the disconnects, I will vote “yes.” I’ve changed my mind since the last plebiscite. If some people would rather gamble, so be it. They might as well do it in Brandon.

I also will vote “yes” for three positive reasons: to show support for our First Nations neighbours, to help make the inevitable project as viable as possible, and to encourage downtown development.

The plebiscite is a chance to say “yes” to the future. Even if we have to hold our noses while doing so. (Hopefully we won’t have to hold our noses because of the smoking!)

My prediction, however, is that the vote will go “no.” Or else be such a weak “yes” that City Council will be afraid to touch it.

I think then the onus should be on the “no” voters especially to propose something else. What other ideas are there to bridge racial gaps and promote the downtown, tourism, and community development?

Brandon doesn’t just have to settle for being one of the last places to have a casino. Perhaps as well we could be first to create something much better.
But if a casino does come to Brandon, we should hold our leaders accountable. Wait a few years – after the first flush of excitement and growing pains are over.

Then we as the public should get a complete report: costs and benefits to taxpayers; employment of First Nations people; negative social effects; full impact on tourism and economic development; and progress made towards an urban reserve.

We won’t get many answers now. But perhaps we can get them in the future.

And, hopefully, we won’t have to go through such a strange process ever again.

* * * *

See also:  

Brandon Casino Plebiscite Result

Brandon:  What Kind of a City Do We Want?  (two-part series)

Reflections on Brandon and on Calgary

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David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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