11/07/2012 02:56 EST | Updated 01/07/2013 05:12 EST

FSIN says new website shows opportunity for gaming strategy with province

REGINA - An aboriginal group says a new online gambling website shows there's an opportunity to develop an Internet gaming strategy with the Saskatchewan government.

Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations says the site is an indication of an expanding online gaming market and warns the industry needs to prepare for the competition.

"We've got to look at it, no question," Bellegarde said Wednesday.

"B.C. has started it, Quebec's gotten into it and so we've got to put the process together so we can study it and make a rational decision after we get all the facts and figures in place."

Bellegarde's comment follow the launch of www.northernbearcasino.com on Tuesday by Bernard Shepherd, a former chief of the White Bear First Nation.

Under the Criminal Code gambling must be authorized by a province and Shepherd didn't have permission. The Ministry of Justice has referred the case to the RCMP.

Bellegarde won't say if he thinks Shepherd had the legal right to do what he did.

"Well, that will be proven down the courts, I'm sure," Bellegarde said.

"I've always said we've got to occupy the field as First Nations people and exercise our own acts. He's got to work with his chief and council on White Bear and that's what he has to do."

Bellegarde also pointed out that www.northernbearcasino.com is not an initiative of the federation or the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority, which operates six First Nations casinos across the province.

"We've got a gaming framework with the province of Saskatchewan and we want to respect that," said Bellegarde.

"I view this as an opportunity for us, as the FSIN and the province as partners in gaming, to start working out a comprehensive strategy which includes i-gaming. So I see this now, we've really got to put our heads together."

This isn't the first time Shepherd has taken a bet on launching a casino.

In 1993, he set up the first casino on the reserve in defiance of provincial gaming laws. The RCMP shut it down, seizing slot machines and other gambling paraphernalia in a pre-dawn raid.

The confrontation prompted negotiations between the provincial government and Saskatchewan First Nations. Eventually, a deal was struck in which the government and the bands share in profits from casinos.

Charges against Shepherd, who was chief at the time, were later stayed.

Donna Harpauer, minister responsible for the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority, said Wednesday that the government has told the FSIN it isn't interested in expanding gaming at this time. There isn't a strong business case and there are social issues, like addiction, she said.

Harpauer said she will meet with Bellegarde if he wants to talk, but she will tell him 'No' again.

"He's probably going to be a little disappointed, but to just close the conversation I don't think is respectful either. I think that the province should listen to what he has to say."

Harpauer admitted there is some concern that other people could start up gaming websites on their own.

"I guess we'll see how this unfolds as it goes forward and there is an investigation. Probably the outcome of that investigation will determine what will happen in the future."