Abstract Aims This paper provides a historical review of gambling in Canada and examines the benefits and shortcomings of present-day Canadian gambling policies and practices. This includes a discussion of provincial and federal government roles in gambling regulation and an overview of problem gambling prevention and treatment initiatives. Methods The gambling studies literature was probed for pertinent information on factors such as historical development, legislative changes, economic conditions and cultural influences that have affected gambling participation and social responsibility strategies in Canada. Results Two major Criminal Code of Canada amendments (in 1969 and 1985) were pivotal in Canadian gambling expansion. The first decriminalized lotteries and casinos, while the second allowed electronic gambling devices and authorized provinces to operate and regulate gambling. These changes resulted in a radical gambling expansion which, in addition to raising provincial revenues, created public policy concerns. Varying provincial government interpretations of the ambiguous Criminal Code gambling statutes led to a lack of uniformity in how provinces regulate and operate gambling; when gambling expanded, there were no legislative safeguards in place to deal with the personal and societal effects of problem gambling. Subsequent programs designed to prevent and treat problem gambling have not been overly effective. Conclusions Canadian provinces have a monopoly on gambling within their borders and treat the activity as a profit-driven business enterprise. Problems associated with widespread gambling such as addiction, increased crime, bankruptcy and suicide are seen as minor concerns and not addressed in an aggressive fashion. Given the Canadian federal government's detachment from gambling policy and Canadian provinces' heavy reliance on gambling revenues, little change in the Canadian gambling landscape is anticipated in the near future.