Early in May, the Canadian Senate really stepped in it. But this time it wasn’t a sex scandal, backward comments on Aboriginals, or even taxpayers subsidizing Mike Duffy’s impending heart attack. Nope, the Canadian Senate’s great sin in May was this: they published a storybook for children about the Senate. It’s called The Wise Owls and it’s supposed to teach kids about the role of the Senate in Canada. Also, we’re being sarcastic, because frankly The Wise Owls is good content marketing and the furore around this children’s book is a tempest in a teapot.
The book, written and illustrated (richly, we might add) in-house by the Senate’s communication department, had a print run of 3,500 copies in both languages, costing a grand total of $6,179. You can pick up your very own copy in the Senate foyer. Or, if a Senator visits your child’s school, they might bring a copy to read to classes. Or you can download a copy to read on your tablet, for free, because it’s 2017 and this is a government publication.
Reaction hasn’t been positive. The CBC’s Robyn Urback has written a parody called Along Came the Parasites. Vice joked about an owl stealing a $90,000 cheque off the Prime Minister’s table “for owl stuff”. Letters to the editor in the Ottawa Citizen decried the book as “. . . at best, an overpriced, self-aggrandizing platitude unfit for children.” Facebook users wrote, “When I started reading this I thought it was April fools day, but then I soon realized it was May 1st. I see the senate is in the industry of fake news.”
NDP leader Tom Mulcair wins the award from most hysterical overreaction; he told CTV, “I think the Canadian children need to be protected from this sort of thing.”
So, what exactly do Canadian children need to be protected from?
As we’ve mentioned, the Wise Owls is a storybook, fully illustrated, intended for children. It explains how the Senate works by imagining Canada as a forest full of animals. The animals decide to work together by electing Council of Animals who will debate issues and vote on how to run the forest. The foxes vote the slyest fox to represent them, the wolves vote for the fastest wolf, and the moose elect the moose with the biggest antlers. Not all goes well, though. A beaver gets permission from the Council of Animals to cut down some trees to make a lodge for other beavers, but in the process, smashes a badger’s front door and breaks a squirrel’s nest. The animals of the forest realise that the Council of Animals is a good forum for advocating for their individual needs, but they need some kind of second council to make sure the first council does its job well and thinks of the needs of all animals. So: they call the second council the Senate and fill it with owls and their job is to stick around year after year and make sure the Council of Animals does it’s job.
The Wise Owls is good content marketing for the Senate. What critics are forgetting (or ignoring so they can pretend to be outraged) is that is a book for children. One of the ways to measure the effectiveness of content marketing is to look at how it speaks to its audience. Government institutions need to explain themselves to their citizens, even the bloc of citizens who write primarily in pencil crayon. Frankly, it’s impressive that The Wise Owls can explain something as dull as the Senate to children. It’s also impressive that the Senate managed to do all this in-house and print their books for a relatively low cost. We’d be even more impressed if this was followed up with a big social media campaign. But baby steps, we guess.
This isn’t to say that Canada’s Senate isn’t a scandal-ridden mess. It isn’t to excuse Don Meredith’s vile conduct, Lynn Beyak’s obnoxious revisionism, or Mike Duffy’s apparently legal taxpayer-enabled gluttony. All those things should be condemned—but it’s probably enough to condemn those things on their own terms. Saying that The Wise Owls is a bad because Mike Duffy is bad doesn’t make much sense and appears to be shoehorning adult complaints into a story about a children’s book.
Our feelings about the Senate aside, The Wise Owls is the kind of content marketing the government should be doing. It’s relatively low-cost, produced in-house, and communicates effectively with its audience. Frankly, we can think of lots of government communication that does none of those things. Lookin’ at you, Pierre Poilievre.