Last week you may have noticed groups of people around Whitehorse, strangely fixated on their smartphones and huddled at apparently random street corners.
They were playing a new “augmented reality” game called Council of the Federation.
You could tell they weren’t playing Pokemon Go because they were middle-aged, wearing blazers and some of them were using — gasp! — Blackberries.
In Council of the Federation, there are thirteen teams and the objective of each player is to find a topic that they can get players from the twelve other teams to agree to issue a “communique” about. Most of the time you play at home, but once a year all the players travel to a city in Canada for that year’s final round.
You get points for each word in your communique, and more points per word as you get closer to the end of the final round. If you can get a short communique done on Day 1, it probably was about something easy.
Even though Council isn’t in the Canadian constitution, game organizers set up official-looking venues, events and gaming sessions (called negotiation meetings) like the European Council of Ministers or the United Nations. To keep it fresh, the gaming moves from one venue to another. In the case of Whitehorse, gamers moved from the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre to the Arts Centre to the golf course.
They even threw in a gaming session in Haines Junction, complete with fog and cancelled flights. The challenge in Haines Junction was to keep playing without getting spotted using your smartphone when you were supposed to be paying attention to the cultural program.
The first team to score a communique was the governance team, with a short but nicely executed 351-word communique called “Premiers work to improve the state of the federation.” They scored some bonus points for fitting six acronyms into one sentence, announcing premiers would meet with aboriginal groups including FPTIF, AFN, ITK, MNC, IPAC and NWAC.
But 351 words on Day 1 is nowhere near a high-scoring communique. After all, it’s too easy to get a communique just by promising players more meetings in the future.
The softwood lumber team scored early too, with a 257-word letter to the Prime Minister (you get points for those too), asking him to stand up to the Americans in forestry trade. A short letter asking someone else to do something difficult doesn’t score many points. It’s kind of like a two-letter word in Scrabble.
At least they did better than the pipeline team. They failed to even get a communique. Even their attempts to get the word “pipeline” into the “Growing Canada’s Economy” or “responsible energy development” communiques didn’t work.
Ouch. All that travel to Whitehorse and you’re still stuck at Level 1 when you go home.
The winners were the inter-provincial trade team, who scored the last communique just before deadline. They lulled the other teams into a false sense of security with a relatively short 194-word communique, but then followed up with an “in your face!” bonus attachment of 437 words. This is kind of like pretending to shoot for two points in the NBA, but then slam-dunking and jumping into the crowd to celebrate.
Of course, this is nowhere near a real trade deal like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is 2,056,560 words. But it was good enough to win the Whitehorse round.
Some colour commentators from the Macdonald-Laurier Institute complained in their post-game analysis that the trade communique was just a vague agreement in principle. “It’s a patent attempt by the premiers to whistle past the graveyard by calling this infinitesimal movement progress,” the said. “Until we see chapter and verse on what barriers will actually be removed and how the new agreement will be enforced, serious doubts must remain about what real progress has been achieved.”
They are right of course. But this is kind of like hockey commentators complaining that the neutral zone trap makes for boring games. The point is to win the Stanley Cup and if a few people get bored along the way, who cares?
Back in the real world, the Whitehorse round of Council provided some good lessons. One is about the federal government. It can be a distant and annoying body, especially for a small jurisdiction like the Yukon so far from the Montreal-Toronto power axis. But watching the premiers play Council reminded me why creating a federal government with strong powers in some areas was important to our nation’s founders in 1867. The mind boggles at what would be happening if Council were running the nation’s army, banking system or foreign trade.
It’s also a reminder of why the Europeans, who designed their confederation a hundred years after we did, didn’t leave internal trade up to the member states to negotiate among themselves. Their analog of our federal government has strong powers over what they call the Single European Market. The Canadian constitution seems to give the federal government strong powers to regulate interprovincial trade, but it has traditionally been extremely passive (by European standards) in using them.
The next round of Council is in Edmonton next summer. More communiques will be issued and more points scored. But I’ll be more interested to see if the cranky commentators from Macdonald-Laurier think any real progress has been made.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won last year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist.