N.B. Readers who would like to take up the Victoria 2 #Canada150 challenge without reading the historical introduction, can skip to the play rules, below.
March 16th, 1882. Canada’s 4th parliament is in session.
A member of the Liberal party from the opposition bench, the Right Honourable William Paterson from Brant South (Ontario), is conducting a scathing exposé of the ruling Conservative Party’s economic policies, and the party’s close ties with railway finance. His speech, full of names and numbers, is truly damning, as Paterson unravels the land appropriation and cash-funneling methods of the Conservative Party, pushing the transcontinental railway agenda.
Across the isle, a member of the acting government interrupts him on minor grammar points. Though petty interruptions are typical of parliamentary debates, Paterson takes umbrage, and accuses his naysayer of using interruption tactics to derail his speech. A minor tussle ensues, in which opposing house members accuse each other of indecorous manners unfit for the House of Commons.
Realizing the debate is descending into triviality, Paterson ups the ante: he recalls the Conservatives’ oft-repeated claim of his party’s “disloyalty” to the British Crown during the National Policy debates of the 1870s, to prepare for a verbal takedown. Indeed, a common tactic used by the Conservative Party to silence critics during that period (and beyond!) had been to construe public opposition to their scheme as expressions of disloyalty to the nation. Some even went so far to declare in the press that National Policy critics were “closet annexationists”, pushing for Canada’s absorption into the “American system”.
But where did these ideas of American system and closet annexationists come from? Being in the opposition, Paterson knows the views of the Conservative party’s leader, John A. MacDonald, on this issue. Thus, mirroring the charge of disloyalty back to his accusers, Paterson quotes directly from a speech by MacDonald – now Canada’s Prime Minister – given a year prior, and reads it out for all ears to hear:
Now, where this March 16, 1882 debate ended up going is a matter for the parliamentary minutes. For students of Canadian history however, this 1881 quote from Canada’s first Prime Minister is a real nugget…
John A. MacDonald: Hero or Villain?
Flashforward to the present. In the political fallout of the Charlottesville, Virginia incident of August 2017, Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. MacDonald, has once again become a figure of public controversy, in light of the historical legacy of his racist attitudes and beliefs. But MacDonald is also considered a pivotal figure in Canadian history, and a leading force behind the formation of the modern Canadian state in 1867. In fact, MacDonald’s presence in the Canadian pantheon – and on the $10 bill – is centered on this single, irreducible fact: that he was a key architect of Confederation.
As a result of his role in the creation of the modern Canadian state, MacDonald has for over a century now been presented to the Canadian public as a nation-builder. Indeed, turn to any political biography, public monument, school textbook or parliamentary tour guide, and you’ll come across this trope of “John A. MacDonald, the nation-builder”, time and again. Though it may help foster patriotic sentiment, this kind of overly national focus on MacDonald’s role in the Canadian story, unfortunately, won’t take us very far in understanding the past. In the Canadian case in particular, a strictly national focus cannot shed much light on the reasons that motivated Canadian state formation, nor the complexity of MacDonald’s actual views on the matter.
In this, we should take a cue from the MacDonald quote above. Indeed, a cursory review of the historical record reveals that John A. MacDonald, Canada’s legendary nation-builder, was also a staunch British imperialist. In truth, MacDonald could not countenance the idea of political independence, and thought those who did so to be fools. In public and in private, he put forth the matter starkly: the political independence of small states opens them up to annexation by an imperial power, at the first opportunity. Basically, the small fish get eaten up by the big ones, in the Darwinian struggle for political viability.
Whatever we may think of MacDonald today (and where his true political allegiances lay) the least we can say is that he was a man of his age – the age of high imperialism – and bore no illusions as to what was required to be a “player” in the great game of nations during the Victorian Era.
Canada 150: The Good, The Bad and the Boring
That was then, this is now. But as it goes, this year – 2017 – marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the modern Canadian state – coyly referred to in the media (both inside and outside of Canada) as “Canada’s 150th birthday”. Time to celebrate Canada’s well-earned place in the concert of nations?
Throughout the year, Canadians have had the opportunity to express their national pride in a variety of venues, and occasions. To help them in this endeavor, Canadian governmental, civic and business entities have served up platefuls of patriotic fare to an eager populace, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.
A common refrain heard throughout the celebrations has been that of “Canadian values” – freedom, respect, tolerance and diversity – values that underscore what nationalist historians, state officials and media outlets call “the Canadian experience” – loosely defined as the multiplicity of identities that make the Canadian cultural mosaic conjugated with the shared experience of living in a vast, nordic country. At least all the civic events I was witness to kept to the same baseline: the diversity of stories that Canadians have to tell about their origins and experiences, and the shared values and experiences that bring them together as one big family.
On the flip side of this multiculturalist state liturgy, many of Canada’s First Nations also took to the occasion to express their ambivalence or dismay at the celebrations, using this moment of national conversation to bring to the fore their historical grievances toward the Canadian state, and parallel colonial institutions. Situated, as they were, at the receiving end of the process of white settler state formation – and in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – Canada’s First Nations had very contrasting stories to tell, which threw a pall of sordid gloom and guilt over the sparkly song of Canadian civic virtues.
Thus, by the time Canada Day (July 1st) rolled around the corner, a strange dialectic had come into play, with two sharply contrasting emotional tones coalescing around the official events – joy and pride, and pain and guilt.
Lost in the conversation, strangely enough, were the voices of historians. Specifically, historians interested in telling the story of Canadian state formation – perhaps the least sexy topic for national festivities. But an important topic nonetheless, if we are to understand whose birthday exactly, we were celebrating in 2017: indeed, July 1st, 2017 was the 150th birthday of the Dominion of Canada. Which takes us back to Canada’s first “Independence Day” – on July 1st, 1867.
Squarely in the nineteenth century.
This then, is a basic truth about modern Canada: it was born during the Victoria Era. And if history textbooks have told this story many times over, we’ve unfortunately let the Big Questions surrounding Canada’s “birth” get a pass during our year of celebration. Questions such as: why was the modern Canadian state formed in 1867? What were the events that led up to its creation? Who were the peoples living in the British North American colonies, back then? What were the political and economic forces that drove the colonies to unite? Who wanted this to happen, and who were opposed to the idea of political union? And what status did Canada occupy, upon Confederation, in the British Empire and on the world stage?
The Great Game of Nation-Building
We have already obtained our first clue to the puzzle of “Canadian independence” from Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. MacDonald. And as we have seen, his stated position on national independence does not sit so squarely with our traditional idea of MacDonald the nation-builder.
At this juncture we have to ask ourselves, in 2017, what do we care more about: the hard truth of history, or inspiring stories about the past that serve the cause of national unity? Or, is a “median position” between these two postures possible?
Here’s what I have to propose. Whether you are Canadian or of any other nationality, I would like to suggest a new way of commemorating nation-states that avoids paying lip service to nation-building narratives – without rejecting the idea of nation out of hand, either. Instead, what I propose, in true Canadian fashion, is a middle-ground approach: let us remove all the varnish, and look at the naked furniture.
No more poetry. Just the plain prose, please.
My point: since nations and states seem so fatally intertwined, we would do well to focus on state formation, and not on the national narratives that help sell the state. In other words, let’s use historical inquiry to lift the veil of nation-building narratives to peer under the hood, and look at the historical dynamics that have birthed modern nation-states.
To do this, I propose that we (virtually) “step back” in the nineteenth century, and examine the broader factors that made Canadian state formation possible. Of course, there are many good books out there about the foundation of the modern Canadian state. But unless you’re ready and willing to embark on a research project, you might prefer a tool to help tie the plurality of historical narratives to the broader trends of the Victorian era. Might I then suggest Paradox Interactive’s strategy title Victoria 2 to assist you in your quest for True (Historical) North.
Victoria 2 is the perfect industrial-age historical simulator, to inject the spirit of imperial rivalry and modern statecraft into our ever-contentious celebrations of national pride. As a grand strategy game set in the nineteenth century, Victoria 2 pits competing nations in a contest for political viability against a backdrop of Victorian-era geopolitics and the integrated world market. As a “narrative engine”, Victoria 2 also plunges players into the hodgepodge of political ideologies and great struggles of the day – from the abolition of slavery, to the extension of voting rights, to industrial reform, to the birth of mass education – that were to have a shaping influence on our times. Thus, in its treatment of nineteenth-century trends through game mechanics, Victoria 2, I am suggesting, can provide us with a functional model of nineteenth-century statecraft, with nation-building narratives as the icing on the cake.
Furthermore, Victoria 2 is an ideal choice to replay the Canadian state’s foundational moment, because of its focus on demographics and economics. Canadian historians have often emphasized these two areas of development as integral to Canadian state consolidation. And then there are issues of political architecture. As such, Victoria 2 situates Canada on the world scene as a British colonial state. In the game, British North American (future Canadian) territories and “POPs” (population types and numbers) can be released by a British sovereign, within its imperial “sphere”. And if granted independence, the Empire’s expansionist logic still besets the young nation, with the added pressure of American continental ambitions.
In other words, whether you play the game “vanilla” or with a Canadian-flavoured mod, the basic features of the grand strategy genre, and Victoria 2 in particular, are well-suited to replay and unpack the process of modern state formation in an age in which the British Empire sat at the top of the heap, and with new industrial superpowers coming to the fore.
Take the Play the Past #Canada150 Challenge
July 1st, 1867. Crowds gather in Market Square in Kingston, Ontario to celebrate Dominion Day. A new nation is born, and Canadians are in the mood for celebration.
But rejoicings will be short-lived. The new nation, alas, rests on a precarious political union, wrought from compromise and difficult negotiation between Upper and Lower Canada, and the maritime colonies that have joined them in Confederation. With the fires of the American civil war now in slow burn and the state of Alaska purchased from the Russian Empire, Canadians fear a revival of American annexationist ambition. Politicians turn their attention to the Western frontier, and join forces with railway magnates for the next thrust of Canadian state consolidation.
Before the next decade is over, will America succeed in claiming for itself the entirety of West Coast, from Alaska to California? Or will the upstart state of Canada extend its realm, through rapid, successive waves of land acquisition and infrastructure projects, from sea to sea? Worse yet: will the new nation be absorbed into the expansionist reach of the United States ? With the West Coast gold rush showing no signs of let-down and the British Empire heavily invested in all corners of the globe, the stakes are high. The scramble for the Pacific is on !
Victoria 2 Players ! In the wake of the #Canada150 celebrations of 2017, Play the Past is looking to hear from the Victoria 2 community what it’s like to “play” an emerging Canada in everybody’s favorite 19th-century simulator: Victoria 2.
Have you played Canada in Victoria 2? If so, Play the Past would like to hear how it went! The good, the bad, and the ugly… 🙂
There are two ways you can share with us your Victoria 2 Canada stories :
- Publish your play-through (text only, or text with screen captures) in relevant forum discussions.
- Publish your summary and anecdotes, or a link to your detailed play-through, directly in the comments section of this article (below).
Alternately, you can share your play-through with us any way you prefer: short or detailed AARs (After Action Reports), screen captures with commentary, or even a YouTube video (or series of videos) of your play-through. You can also play the game “vanilla”, or with any mod. If you play a modded version, let us know which mods you used. Our only requirement: you must share your own play-through (i.e. not somebody else’s work).
A few questions to help you with drafting your Victoria 2 Canada play-through submission:
- Did you play Canada from the 1861 start date, as a quasi-independent state? Or did you begin as the British Empire in 1836, and play Canada upon its release from the Empire?
- How did you build up the emerging Canadian state? Did you focus on core provinces, or did you rush to add new territories?
- Did you also engage in colonisation? Close-by, or overseas?
- How did you set the economy on the path to industrialization? Did you opt for state control of the economy, or prefer a laissez-faire approach, to favour capitalists?
- How did you attract immigration to Canada? In return, how did your POPs (population segments) put pressure on you to vote laws, and enact certain policies?
- What was your participation in wars? Did you initiate any, or did you join in? What was the outcome?
- What relations did you establish with the Great Powers, esp. the United States and the UK? How did the Great Powers shape the development of Canada, or impinge on its development goals?
Deadline for submissions : June 15th, 2018. Open to all: Canadians, and non-Canadians alike.
Play the Past will publish a follow-up article in early July, compiling highlights, and the juiciest tidbits!