Sydney’s Casino at 25: Gambling Addiction

Editor’s Note: Sydney’s casino turns 25 this summer and to mark its quarter-century, Rob Csernyik has been taking an in-depth look at the promises — and realities — of casino gambling in Cape Breton. In Part III, he focuses on the question of addiction. (Read Part I here and Part II here.)


Paul Burrell is one of the few casino gambling addicts to publicly blame the Nova Scotia provincial government for feeding his addiction. After losing about $500,000 — including a $200,000 workers’ compensation settlement — at the Sydney casino, Burrell filed a lawsuit against the province, claiming it did not do enough to keep problem gamblers out of its casinos. The suit was dismissed in 2010, but during the intervening years, an ombudsman’s report gave him some vindication, finding casino staff lacked training to deal with gambling addicts.

To this day, Burrell doesn’t understand how a court could fail to hold the casino or the government responsible, at least in part, for his addiction.

I spent 24, 48 hours at a time – day after day, week after week, month after month – in the place,” he says in a phone interview from his Ontario home. “What would you need – somebody to hit you with a fucking claw hammer to not see that?

He says there was a point where he could take a few thousand dollars to the casino — in $1,000 bills no less —  thinking nothing of it. Burrell remembers his fellow diehard gamblers knew each other by name, and alleges that staff noticed more than they let on. He recalls a casino employee saying they once heard a manager ask, “Are we getting Burrell’s money tonight?”

Burrell went through tough times in the years leading up to the height of his gambling addiction, not only harassment he says he experienced when he owned a small business, but struggles (ultimately successful) to get workers’ compensation from an injury suffered as a DEVCO coal miner. Then came gambling addiction, costing him the financial security his settlement had won him, as well as his marriage. Burrell says addicts get treated like criminals while their suppliers – drug dealers or government-sanctioned casinos – get off easy.

“I’m not the criminal, the government’s criminal,” he says. “I was the victim.”

Burrell says he never sought treatment for his gambling addiction but has mostly abstained, adding the last time he went to a casino was about two years ago. He lost a couple of hundred bucks.

“I don’t have the money to go in and sit for hours on a machine and lose like I did, day after day after day,” he says. “I guess the realization has come to pass… that if I do that, I’m going to end up dead.”

Though Burrell moved away from Cape Breton about a decade ago, leaving his past behind hasn’t been simple. A live-in girlfriend broke up with him about two weeks before our interview. After the split, she mentioned her mother had read about his problems online after googling his name.

“So it just keeps coming back to haunt me, doesn’t it?”


Government-run casino gambling in Cape Breton is an enterprise deserving of scrutiny, how it impacts individual Cape Bretoners and taxes the social system are questions worth asking, but I’ve encountered many obstacles in the search for answers. Hard data on gambling addiction in Nova Scotia is like a piece of Swiss cheese, mostly holes. For example, the Department of Health and Wellness (DHW) hasn’t done research into the prevalence of problem gambling since 2013. And the statistics are presented in a way that doesn’t isolate their impact on the CBRM, despite the municipality hosting a casino.

Instead, the municipality is lumped into the “Eastern Zone” which engulfs all of Cape Breton Island, as well as a portion of the mainland including Antigonish and Guysborough. In the 2013 report, this zone had the highest reported rate of gambling in the province:

Man at VLT terminal

Photo by rulenumberone2, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Respondents from the Eastern Zone dominated participation in weekly lotteries, charity raffles, and VLTs. Slot machine gambling (at 9.6%) was also marginally higher among respondents in the Eastern Health Zone, even though the casino in the Eastern Zone has roughly 40% fewer slot machines than that in the Central Zone (Halifax), and the latter has a larger catchment area.

Another comparison with Halifax’s Central Zone stands out: the two zones had “approximately equal proportions of gamblers in 2007,” but by 2013, the Central Zone’s participation dropped by almost 17%.

Hard data can  illustrate the difference between the two areas, but it can’t explain it.  I contend there must be a cultural element to it. In a 2006 article in the journal Identities, Reade Davis suggested the attraction to games of chance in rural Newfoundland and Labrador “may be related to the tremendous risk and uncertainty that has always characterized the lives of the people that live there, particularly those engaged in the fishery.”

This could reasonably be applied to Cape Breton. Fishing, a traditional career in the area, is one of the most dangerous in the world. Mining also has a high degree of risk relative to other careers. Is it a stretch to think this could explain Cape Bretoners’ deep-rooted love for games of chance? Consider how many fundraisers focus on raffle tickets or 50/50 draws, children and teenagers hawking tickets from an early age. Cape Breton helped put Chase The Ace on the map – even making the New Yorker – causing such fundraisers to spread like weeds.

In 2013, the Eastern Zone also had the largest proportion of low-risk gamblers in Nova Scotia. According to the Problem Gambling Severity Index (PGSI) – the tool the government used in making this assessment – a low-risk gambler experiences one or two minor gambling-related problems. This sounds innocuous, but could include people “sometimes” betting more than they can afford to lose, returning to win money they lost, having financial problems in the household or borrowing money or selling things in order to gamble. Just one additional point (on a scale of 27) can shift a gambler from low-risk to moderate-risk.


Elizabeth Stephen, a Halifax-based gambling counselor, says by the time people enter treatment it’s often too late, because “they’re off the charts.”

She says the problem with the PGSI is that if a gambler scores one or two and is considered low-risk, the addictive nature of slots means playing them more than once a month theoretically makes a gambler high-risk. Yet the nature of addiction is complex. Stephen points out that if someone drank alcohol once a month they wouldn’t be considered at high risk for addiction.

“We have low-risk guidelines for drinking,” she says. “We have low-risk guidelines for some drugs – it’s like zero use, right? We don’t have low-risk guidelines for gambling.”

Stephen says work has been done to create these guidelines, but there’s no consensus on what they are. It can depend on the product in question – buying a weekly lotto ticket, for instance, is a different risk level than weekly slot machine play. Even an individual’s income or wealth can factor in – a millionaire spending $200 a week is different than someone who earns $20,000 a year doing the same.

NS Gaming Corp problem gambling Quiz

Source: Nova Scotia Gambling Corporation

Part of the challenge is that, in addition to the place of gambling in Cape Breton culture, other factors keep players coming back to the casino regularly, from cheap food buffets and longer playing hours (even 24 hours a day in the past), to higher betting limits and a relatively festive environment, compared to the gloomy corners of bars where VLTs are often placed.

Casino Nova Scotia has built-in measures to help dissuade addictive play — ”responsible gaming resource centres” and voluntary self-exclusion — measures not employed with any other form of gaming in the province.

The resource centers, located at both Casino Nova Scotia locations, are staffed by an outside firm, Morneau Shepell. An attendant working at one of them told me people have to present themselves as having a problem with gambling, they can’t be approached by staff.

The voluntary self-exclusion program allows people to ban themselves from Nova Scotia’s casinos. Though there is research suggesting this is not a totally successful method, the program has been in place since the casinos opened. According to the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation (NSGC), between the two locations, 2,181 people have asked to be put on the list since 1995. (But since 2008, people can apply to lift the ban, and 277 people have done so.)

The NSGC also spent almost $20 million on technology from Sydney tech entrepreneur John Xidos to help prevent gambling addiction. His My-Play technology for VLTs, which launched province-wide in 2010 and by 2012 was mandatory on VLTs, tracked player information and allowed them to set spending and time limits, among other features. Use of the system was abandoned in 2014 due to poor utilization.


Robert Williams, a health sciences professor at the University of Lethbridge and gambling expert, suggests only a small number of gambling addicts ever seek treatment – maybe 15%. (Some, like Burrell, even choose to manage the addiction themselves.) As a result, health costs to governments don’t tend to be huge.

“And those who do [seek treatment] often seek free treatment like Gamblers Anonymous,” he says. “So the actual impact on the local healthcare system is usually fairly minuscule.” (There are Gamblers Anonymous groups in Sydney and Membertou, including female-only meetings.)

People playing slot machines.

Photo by Downtowngal, CC BY-SA 3.0

But Nova Scotia’s addiction care system isn’t as simple as it should be, and in Cape Breton, getting help involves navigating a complicated corner of a broken system.

“When you opened up these flashy casinos that were owned by the province, it instantly normalized the idea of gambling,” Todd Vassallo, a Sydney-based psychotherapist, told me in a recent interview. “Because when I was a kid, I had a neighbor that ran an illegal card game that the cops used to come and bust and he’d be charged for illegal gambling.”

Vassallo has practiced for about 15 years, including treating people with gambling addictions, and has witnessed the role legal gambling’s rise has played in mental health care.

“As the medical model was starting to see gambling as an addiction, the government’s language went away from that,” he says.

Vassallo noticed it soften from “gambling addiction” to “problem gambling” to “responsible gaming,” which he feels makes it sound less harmful, masking the true risk.

Saying “responsible gaming,” he says, is like saying “responsible heroin,” because people aren’t told it’s okay to take a small dose of heroin once every two weeks. Yet similar suggestions have been made about playing slots or VLTs.


Trying to learn more about the trajectory people with gambling addictions must follow in Cape Breton to get help hasn’t been simple. Answers from Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSH) came several weeks after the requested deadline, although I’d first reached out to them in February, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What I’d hoped to get was clarity on issues that had come up in discussion with Stephen and Vassallo, counselors who treat gambling addiction, but NSH offered little substantive insight. When the DHW responded via email, it didn’t even address the questions one-by-one — and some questions were not acknowledged or addressed at all.

NSHA Eastern Zone emergency dept closures, 29 October 2020

I asked NSH what happens if someone calls Addiction Services looking for help with a gambling addiction. This is their response:

An individual can self-refer through the MHAP Intake Service Line (1-855-922-1122 toll-free), they can also be referred by their family doctor or a community support group. Clinicians answer the calls and complete an assessment and triage by phone (it takes approximately 30 minutes) to assess the severity of the individual’s needs, to connect them to an appointment with a clinician, or community support or more urgent support. Treatment is based on the clinician’s assessment and the individual’s

And what will clinicians recommend?

Community Mental Health and Addictions clinicians can recommend community supports as part of someone’s recovery,” the organization says. “This may include Gamblers Anonymous, SMART recovery, or other community groups.

According to Vassallo, one of the biggest challenges arises when an individual needs more urgent support.

“If you’ve just gambled away your entire family’s income and you feel suicidal, you can call 811,” he says, but from his experience they’ll tell you to go to the local emergency room. He adds that for follow-up with a mental health specialist, “you’ll wait between six and 10 months to see somebody.”

This sounds like an exaggeration, but according to Nova Scotia’s wait times website, as of October 2020, Industrial Cape Breton clinics will see 50% of mental health patients deemed “non-urgent” within 155 days and 90% within 238 days. Meanwhile, wait times at some clinics in the Halifax Regional Municipality are an astounding 10 times shorter. For instance, wait times for 90% of non-urgent mental health patients at the Cole Harbour and Dartmouth-Wyse Road clinics are 22 and 24 days, respectively.

A 2017 independent auditor’s report recommended performance indicators for all mental health programs and services (which encompass addictions) in Nova Scotia, stating there wasn’t a “formal accountability structure to the health authority for the performance of existing Services.” When I asked NSH for examples, the only one they specified was the wait-times website.

Vassallo says the way Nova Scotia’s healthcare system is set up, everyone’s funneled into the emergency room, which is problematic to begin with, because they are routinely closed. But he also sees this as stigmatizing non-physical issues. “So you have somebody that’s struggling emotionally with the effects of their gambling next to someone with a broken leg,” he says, suggesting this might lead gamblers to minimize their issues even more than they already do.

Vassallo adds that gambling addicts can see a counselor privately if they have a workplace health plan or can pay out of pocket. However, an online search shows the standard rates of many psychotherapists and counselors, at $100-plus an hour, are out of reach of lower-income clients.


This is, in part, why it was so maddening to get unclear answers to simple questions from NSH and the DHW. As a trained journalist, I found it difficult to navigate the various organizations and get clear answers to my questions, so I can only imagine how stressful it must be for people in crisis. I also feel, after interacting with NSH and DHW, that there’s a clear reluctance to talk about gambling addiction, which I believe is both because casinos (and other forms of gambling) are mostly run by a government crown corporation and also because the absence of data highlights how the province has abdicated its responsibility to protect its citizens from the dangers of gambling. Dangers that, at their very worst, can be fatal.

In 2017, Vassallo told the Cape Breton Post that he believes gambling addiction is a major cause of suicide locally.

Past academic studies have suggested communities with casinos report increased suicide rates due to the consequences of gambling addiction. Since 1995, at least two casino-related suicides have been reported in Nova Scotia media. A cancelled 2009 study, released to the public in 2011, claimed six suicides a year were related to gambling, though the province disputed this. In the early 2000s, Nova Scotia briefly tracked reasons for suicides and found 6.3% of them between January 2000 and September 2001 – 10 out of 159 – were linked to gambling addiction.

Vassallo still believes there is a strong connection between gambling addiction and suicide in Cape Breton, but he’s not sure how strong. It’s tough because you need “a note or a smoking gun,” he says, and there’s a gray area when determining the cause; someone could be an alcoholic and a gambling addict for example, or depressed and a gambling addict, yet their suicide gets attributed only to the non-gambling factor. Vassallo notes even some drug overdoses may be suicides, although there’s no way of telling for certain.

When I asked the province’s Medical Examiner Service about tracking gambling-related suicides it said over email it provides only a person’s identity, cause and manner of their death at the end of an investigation. “Factors that may have contributed to the person’s decision to complete suicide are either difficult or impossible to know and report reliably,” says Nova Scotia Justice spokesperson Heather Fairbairn.

Between 2008-2019, according to Nova Scotian government data, 271 suicides were recorded in the Eastern Health Zone. A 6.3% estimate would suggest 17 of those suicides were related to gambling, though we can’t say for certain.

Bottom line: the province doesn’t fully understand the extent of the addiction its casinos feed, or it simply turns a blind eye to the difficulties residents experience trying to access treatment. What it does know – from its own wait-time lists – is that it’s more challenging for people in Cape Breton to get such assistance, even as it benefits from the money the island’s casino gambling addicts are wagering.


Former MLA Dave Wilson remembers his ex-wife working at the casino as a restaurant hostess during its early days.

“After about a year, she quit,” he says. “And I was wondering what was going on. I said, ‘Well, why are you quitting? That’s a pretty good job. Kind of late hours, but a good job.’”

“She said ‘I’m sick and tired of seeing little old ladies standing outside the restaurant crying because they’ve just spent their entire life savings in a casino.’”

Wilson’s own issues with gambling didn’t surface until much later; several years into his political career. He chose to gamble in Halifax, he says, to be less recognizable, but would still run into people from back home. “And that bothered me. I used to run into a lot of other politicians there at certain times of the night, too.”

Despite being one of the province’s political elite, Wilson sometimes had to walk home from the casino in the middle of the night because he didn’t have enough money for a cab.

He says what likely surprised most people was how productive he still managed to be, despite his late-night trips to the casino.

I think probably what surprised most people is after I took the money from the government it was like, “Well, Jesus, he was a good MLA, and he was always working hard at his job, and he returned his calls, and he showed up for this and he did this.” I was on top of my game.

I didn’t think that gambling was interfering with my work at all.

Between January 2006 and December 2009, Wilson stole $61,000 from taxpayers through false expense claims to feed his gambling addiction. His bank records even showed him withdrawing more than $130,000 from the casino bank machine during that period.

In 2010, he resigned suddenly as an MLA, without much explanation. After the truth came out, he pleaded guilty to breach of trust, fraud and uttering forged documents, went to jail for four months and had to rebuild his life, with help from an addictions counselor in Cape Breton.

“It’s a sickness,” he says. “The only thing that brought it to light for me was a set of very traumatic circumstances which led to me eventually saying I have to get help. And two-and-a-half years of counseling by Addictions Nova Scotia, that eventually helped me realize that I could never gamble again and I never should have. But that was pretty extreme. It cost me pretty well, everything.”

Gambling "Myth or Fact"

Source: Nova Scotia Gambling Corporation

It is interesting to think that, less than 15 years after the provincial Liberal Party had opened the casinos, one of its members would have his career derailed by a casino gambling addiction. I asked Wilson how his personal experience had changed his perspective on the necessity of casinos in Nova Scotia:

“It changed my view entirely,” he says, adding that he would previously have argued there was nothing wrong with allowing casinos or VLTs. This is largely, in his view because the latter help keep legions open – “for the veterans that rely on them” – but also small restaurants and bars.

“But, the social impact that they have, and the damage they do and the people they destroy far outweighs that and that’s how my opinion has changed and sided towards.”

He remembers when Danny Graham was Liberal leader and “dead set against VLTs,” that Graham had tried to convince the caucus they should oppose them, but the caucus didn’t see it that way. Wilson says he wouldn’t have seen it that way either.

“But I wasn’t thinking clearly at the time,” he says. “I was thinking as a gambler, and once you step back and take a look at it, once you’ve been through something like that, you know that the right answer is that they just shouldn’t be here.”

But the casino is here, for better or for worse. So the question becomes, can its presence work better for residents of the CBRM and what would it take to get there? This will be the subject of the fourth – and final – part of this series.

Featured image (roulette wheel) by Toni Lozano, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Rob Csernyik

Rob Csernyik is a freelance journalist who was born and raised in Sydney, but currently lives in Saint John, New Brunswick. He has written for The Globe and Mail, The New Republic, Quartz at Work and Vice and edits Great Canadian Longform. Rob was selected for the 2019 investigative journalism intensive at The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity where he started his research on the impacts of Nova Scotia’s casinos.