01/24/2013 05:53 EST | Updated 03/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Aboriginal leader wants province to put cards on table about Winnipeg 'casino'

WINNIPEG - A top Manitoba aboriginal leader accused the NDP government Thursday of being underhanded in allowing a new gambling venue in Winnipeg.

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said the government was wrong to let the owners of the NHL Winnipeg Jets set up a 5,000-square-foot mini-casino after telling First Nations in 2007 that the city's casino market was already saturated.

"They've been elusive. They've been a little bit underhanded in terms of how they're planning to build new casinos here and they owe us some answers," Nepinak said.

Nepinak is upset that True North Sports and Entertainment, the owners of the Jets, are being allowed to offer slot machines, poker and blackjack in a new facility this spring. It will be located in a shopping centre adjacent to the Jets' arena, the MTS Centre.

The government insists the new venue is not a casino — it uses the term "gaming centre" — and is based on the 2011 agreement that offered video lottery terminals to True North as a way to help the arena and the hockey team financially. It's expected to garner $4 million or more a year for the team.

"It's part of an agreement to stabilize the Jets in Winnipeg," Gaming Minister Dave Chomiak said.

The original deal to attract the Jets called for dozens of video lottery machines. More were added to the plan when the Jets arrived. More recently, poker and blackjack tables were added to the mix.

Statistics Canada defines casinos as venues with both machines and table games. Nepinak said it certainly sounds like a casino to him. But Chomiak said casinos are larger facilities.

At the heart of Nepinak's concern is a market study conducted in 2007 under an agreement between the AMC and the government. It recommended against any new casinos in Winnipeg, where two government-run sites were already running, and said the Brandon region was the only area with real potential.

Following a few setbacks, including a rejection by Brandon voters of a casino within city limits, the First Nations casino is now being built in a rural area near Carberry.

Chomiak said Winnipeg was always a no-go for new casinos, and that was made clear to the AMC even before 2007. The government has found other ways to help First Nations benefit from gambling, he added, including handing over a percentage of all gambling revenues.

"We gave them two per cent of gaming revenues for the whole province, which is $20 million."

Chomiak plans to meet with the AMC within the next two weeks to discuss the controversy.Nepinak appeared eager to talk as well.

"I do believe that there's been some underhanded dealings here and I'm disappointed by it."