Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations want consultation on COVID casino closures

REGINA — The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations is calling on the Saskatchewan government to consult with First Nations before shutting down casinos, which it says wasn't done before this weekend.

A new public health rule orders the closure of casinos and bingo halls starting Saturday until at least Jan. 15.

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Federation Chief Bobby Cameron said Indigenous communities benefit from revenue made at casinos operated by the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority (SIGA).

The organization operates seven casinos, which employs hundreds of First Nations people "who have mortgage payments, who live in the towns and cities, who all pay taxes," Cameron said Friday.

"It's affecting a whole lot of people, including those children whose parents work in the casinos. Because maybe Mommy and Dad's not going to be able to afford as much food as they'd like or pay certain bills."

A gaming authority spokeswoman said its casinos will be following the public health order and closing this weekend.

In Prince George, the Treasure Cove casino and bingo hjall have remained closed since April.

Casinos and bingo halls are the only businesses the Saskatchewan Party government has ordered to close. It is restricting capacity for retail businesses, and ruled no more than four people can sit together at a bar or restaurant, which also have a curfew on alcohol sales.

"We contribute significantly to the provincial government from our SIGA revenues and yet First Nation people, we don't see no return from any of those VLTs operating in those lounges, restaurants and bars," said Cameron.

"And it's many of our First Nations people who play those VLTs."

A spokesman for the provincial government said officials have worked with SIGA throughout the pandemic and it aims to protect people's jobs while keeping communities safe from the spread of COVID-19

"Public health order restrictions are intended to reduce this risk by limiting the movement of people as much as possible, including by reducing in-person gathering sizes," said a statement.

Health officials reported 245 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and said two people who were 70 or older had died. The province's death toll from the pandemic sits at 107.

Cameron said the casinos have strict safety protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and have been able to successfully contain the virus when cases have appeared.

He said a staff member at SIGA was contacted two hours before the provincial government announced at the beginning of the week that casinos would be closing, and the FSIN had no prior knowledge of the decision.

"I've actually called and texted Premier (Scott) Moe, a few of the other ministers — no response," said Cameron.

"I don't know why they don't want to talk, or discuss it. I mean, it's just business."

Cameron said the casinos proposed operating at 12 per cent capacity, below the requirement for retailers and other businesses that are allowed to stay open, and he hopes the government will still consider it.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 18, 2020.

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