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View from the North: Looking back at a 1977 game about Canadian civil conflict

Posted: November 19, 2017 at 7:45 am   /   by

Exploring social alternatives through eclectic media

Mark Wegierski looks at Canadian Civil War (by Simulations Publications, Inc. – SPI), a game first published 40 years ago.

Canadian ‘Civil War’: Separatism vs. Federalism in Modern Canada was a board wargame published by Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI), then the premiere gaming company, in 1977. On the game’s cover-sheet, it is called “A Political Simulation Game”, and it is said that “the time is: 15 November 1976.” This is a game with mostly political, rather than military conflict, played on an abstract map, where the four different factions struggle with each other. These are the Federalists (Red counters); the Provincial Moderates (Orange counters); the Provincial Autonomists (Green counters); and the Separatists (Blue counters). (The color of the Provincial Moderate counters is not meant to suggest the Orange Order.) There is a three-player variant for the game (called “The Quiet Revolution”) (without the Separatist Player); but the game works best in the four-player version. (It does not work as a two-player or solitaire game.)

The game components include the distinctive SPI plastic game box and cover-sheet; a 28-page rulebook; a sheet of 400 die-cut, half-inch counters, printed on both sides; a 17” x 22” abstract map; 56 “Political Opportunity” Cards (including Event cards, Election cards, and Crisis cards); four player-aid sheets; and a small six-sided die. The highly abstract map (or “Game Display”) is meant to model conflicts of power structures in Canada, without being a geographic map of Canada. The counters represent various constituencies, pressure-groups, provincial influence markers, and counters for the premiers of the provinces, and the Prime Minister. Each of the factions (colors) represented replicates the same set of counters, so the country-wide conflict can be properly represented. There are also 84 counters representing Canada’s land army, including the militia. They are only used in an “end-game” situation, when a “National Emergency” may be called. The military counters are printed red on the front, and blue on the back (with the same numerical values) – representing their allegiance to either the Federalist or Separatist cause. The Canadian military units are the only strictly military component of the game.

The conflict in the game is very abstractly depicted, but requires negotiations, coalitions, and cabinet building between the players. Steve Goldberg, a prominent Canadian wargame designer (proprietor of the company Simulations Canada or SimCan) provided extensive historical background material to the game (pp. 17-27 of the rulebook). The writing deals very much with the French-English duality of Canada, which was probably the dominant interpretation of Canadian history at that time.

The four factions depicted in the game are a little odd, in my opinion. The idea is that Quebec separatists and Alberta separatists are united in some way – which seems unlikely. It is also a little odd to have these factions function as if they were constituent parties in the Canadian system. The game is right to focus on mostly political conflict, as a recourse to armed conflict seems to be an extremely unlikely outcome for the Canadian polity.

In a recognition of the French-English conflict in Canada, the SPI game is the only one from that company that I am aware of, which makes an attempt at being bilingual (in French and English). The cover-sheet includes (along with English title) “La Guerre de la Sécession du Canada: Les Séparatistes contre Les Fédéralistes dans le Canada moderne” There are also two pages (pp. 14-15) of a rules summary in French, though obviously this is not a fully bilingual game (at least not by the standards of the Canadian federal government). (The English-language rules extend from pp. 2-13 and 16). I would guess that the mostly American wargames – which were usually published solely in English — were considered too marginal a product to be subject to the strictures of Canadian and Quebec language policies.  

It so happens that I published an article in the Washington, D.C.-based monthly, The World & I, under the title “Canada’s ‘Civil War’.” (vol. 12, no. 9, September 1997, pp. 112-117). The article attracted considerable attention, and was reprinted in Annual Editions: World Politics, 1998-99 (Nineteenth Edition) ed. Helen E. Purkitt. Guilford, Connecticut: Dushkin McGraw-Hill, 1998, pp. 49-52. Annual Editions is a college/university reader, the articles for which are selected by the board of editors from hundreds of leading U.S. magazines and journals. My article had a lot of solid information about Canada, as well as some more speculative aspects. In contrast to the four factions depicted in the game, I explored the possibility of a quadri-partite division of Canada along the lines of the West (Reform Party); Ontario (Liberal Party); Quebec (Bloc Québécois); and Atlantic Canada (Progressive Conservative party). I predicted that if the voting patterns of the 1990s continued, Canada could possibly break up along those lines. I had not anticipated that the Canadian Alliance (the successor to the Reform Party) and the federal Progressive Conservatives would eventually successfully merge – thus leading to a Conservative federal government in 2006-2015.

The factions in the game bring to my mind the very different meanings of “federalism” today – in both Canada and the United States. In the United States, “federalism” originally meant that the individual States would have huge discretionary powers. The American Civil War/War Between the States (among other outcomes), attenuated the premises of the original “federalism”. Over the succeeding decades, the Federal Government in the United States has grown increasingly powerful, and much of the roles of the States have atrophied. In Canada, by contrast, the provinces appear to have maintained greater powers. One reason for this is the fact that most provinces are much larger territorially than most U.S. states, and hold a much larger share of the population and economy. Over the decades, the province of Quebec has taken on many attributes of an almost sovereign country.

Steve Goldberg’s writing of 1977 did not predict that Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Canada’s Liberal Prime Minister, would bring in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, although he does note that some kind of new constitutional arrangements may be called for in Canada. Steve rightly notes that the Statute of Westminster (1931), gave Canada “final and complete political independence” (p. 26). The enactment of the Charter was seen by both its supporters and opponents as a virtual coup d’état. It essentially enshrined virtually all of Trudeau’s agenda as the highest law of the land.  The province of Quebec, however, refused to accept the Charter, since it claimed that it diluted its “collective rights”. In fact, Quebec has not acceded to the Charter, to this very day.

Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had launched two attempts to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold – the Meech Lake Accord, and the Charlottetown Agreements. The Meech Lake Accord (signed 1987) among other provisions, recognized Quebec as “a distinct society”. A strange kind of fury seized English-speaking Canada, resulting in the torpedoing of the Accord (in 1990), when it was rejected by two smaller English-Canadian provinces. The Charlottetown Agreements were a second attempt to break the constitutional impasse, but they failed when they were put to a country-wide referendum. Ironically, the “heartlands” of both French- and English-speaking Canada tended to vote against the Agreements. Quebec thought that the Agreements did not offer enough to them, while English-speaking Canada thought that they offered too much to Quebec.

In his writing of 1977, Steve Goldberg does not take much notice of the burgeoning “visible minority” immigration to Canada – which, then and today, continues to play an ever-larger role in the Canadian polity. Indeed, he hearkens back to the original definition of “multiculturalism” in Canada – which was mostly a recognition of other Europeans (including Eastern and Southern Europeans) (alongside the English and French). That definition has been completely eclipsed today. Also, there is very little mention of the Aboriginal peoples by Steve Goldberg.

In the 1970s, the central dilemma of Canada could be seen as being about Quebec separatism (beginning with the October Crisis in 1970, and culminating with the election of a Parti Québécois government in 1976.)  However, today, new dilemmas are being added to the Canadian conundrum.


Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based, Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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View from the North: Looking back at a 1977 game about Canadian civil conflict