Canada needs to end the skill-testing question

Lotteries are regulated. That’s a good thing and it helps to ensure that if you win, you’ll actually get the money. When businesses want to hold a contest, they have rules to follow that prevent them from being exactly like a lottery.

So far so good. I like that situation: I don’t want just ANYONE running a lottery and I like that contests are somewhat regulated to ensure fairness.

But here in Canada, we have law that businesses need to follow when holding a contest: The winner of a contest must answer a skill-testing question. This requirement ensures that the contest (a game of mixed skill and chance) is not a lottery (a game of pure luck). (Click here and here to read more detail about the laws behind this rule).

Furthermore, the rule is that the question has to be a skill-testing question. Usually it’s a math question with at least four parts.

I think this is a stupid rule and it should be changed.

First, it only tests one kind of skill — math. There are other kinds of skills but you’ll never see a skill-testing question like: “Choose three motifs from the book Moby-Dick and explain their significance”. I would love a skill-testing question like that. Or, you won’t see a skill-testing question like: “Assemble these electrical components into a functioning light switch. Okay, that makes sense because the minimum wage employee at the cash register is going to want to hear your answer to (5×4)+3-2. But still, we’re just talking about one kind of skill being tested.

Second, this commonly-tested skill can actually be quite difficult: With the four-part math question, it tests BEDMAS math skills that can include multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction. So we’re talking about skill at a grade level between third grade and sixth grade (depending on the question). I know plenty of adults who are very intelligent people but struggle with math and can’t navigate around BEDMAS.

Third, in a country that claims to be inclusive, we’re pretty strict on this tiny rule. What if someone wins but they have a physical disability that keeps them from seeing the question? Or what happens when someone wins who has a disability and simply cannot complete a 4-part math question? (Here’s a story from 2008 of a woman who has a learning disability and was denied her prize… at first). Or what about if someone wins who doesn’t speak English very well? If businesses follow the letter of the law, they should be turning these people down when they win but cannot answer the question.

Fourth, businesses don’t enforce it anyway because, well, it’s stupid and exclusive. Years ago I won something at a restaurant and the person at the counter handed me the skill-testing question form and said: “Here, you have to fill out this form. The answer to the skill-testing question is 12, by the way.” I took the form, wrote the number 12 on the piece of paper and handed it back and I got my free whatever. Ridiculous… and it was also rare to even be asked at all. It’s not surprising that this is the practice because companies would rather risk the government reprimand than risk a customer service complaint or a lawsuit because someone who couldn’t easily do math was denied a prize. (In the story I liked to above, notice that the woman got her prize anyway even though she got it wrong… and what did the company get? An annoyed customer and some bad press. So yeah, it makes sense that companies don’t follow up on this… after all, who is going to turn you in?)


Canada’s skill-testing question “contest loophole” isn’t the only model. The US has a model that doesn’t require a skill-testing question at all (check out this link, which compares the Canadian and US model)… they just have a rule that entrants don’t have to pay in order to play.

And although no-purchase-necessary is not a mandatory requirement here in Canada, I believe that most contest holders do it anyway just to be safe (you can reference this link I mentioned earlier that talks about the no-purchase-necessary rule as an additional safe-guard against an illegal lottery offense).

In the big picture of life, I realize this is a pretty minor thing. But it’s an annoying thing for business owners and for customers. It’s that thing you have to do even though no one really wants to do it and no one follows it anyway.

And what’s the downside to getting rid of it? If you follow the US model of requiring a no-payment-required-to-play (which Canadian contests often already do) then the skill-testing question can go away.