Summer students hired as tourist guides for Parliament Hill and area have been trained to praise the Senate and disdain democracies with three or more political parties.
A training manual for the 2013 summer season features an eyebrow-raising section about the value of the Senate, now embroiled in expense scandals and ethical breaches.
“Senate investigations are usually of a higher standard than those by committees of the House of Commons,” says a 39-page manual on Canada’s political system.
“Senate investigations are usually non-partisan, in that they do not suffer from excessive media exposure, and that senators ... have the time to dedicate themselves to exhaustive research and analysis, often over long periods of time without having to meet the demands of the electoral process.”
“The lack of partisanship ... is one of the positive results of the much-criticized appointment system.”
Each spring, a high-calibre group of 25 bilingual university students are tested on the contents of the manual, which is designed to prepare them for questions from thousands of tourists. The students typically have contacts with more than half a million people each year from May to August.
A copy, stamped “Summer 2013,” was obtained by The Canadian Press after a request under the Access to Information Act to the National Capital Commission, which directs the guide program.
The students are trained to defend “Canada’s second – not secondary – chamber” by pointing out that the Senate is relatively inexpensive to run.
“The Canadian taxpayer may feel that the Senate’s achievements do not merit its cost, yet a 1991-92 review of its cost ... showed that the Senate costs $1.61 per capita, while the House of Commons cost $8.49 per capita.”
“All Canadians must be made aware of its many achievements.”
The spirited defence of Canada’s unelected upper chamber comes despite the manual’s repeated warnings not to engage in debate with tourists on controversial questions.
The document notes, for example, that many visitors to the capital will criticize the monarchy, including the Queen.
“Don’t get defensive ... remember that most people can’t be convinced of its utility or practicality.”
A separate training manual on Canadian history advises them to steer clear of the issue of Quebec separation and the Constitution. “We do not suggest that you initiate a conversation on this topic ...”
The politics manual also contains a section that touts the benefits of a two-party system, unlike the multi-party hue of the current House of Commons.
“In a multi-party group system the voter is liable to be confused by a variety of competing issues and solutions,” it advises trainees, noting that a two-party system has more “moderation.”
“The two-party system has acted as a great unifying agency in countries such as Canada and the United States, which have not any very deep underlying unity to begin with.”
“There is however a bad side to this achievement of moderation,” it acknowledges. “Often, the successful party leader is the man or woman who can dangle the largest possible number of carrots in front of the noses of the largest possible number of donkeys.”
“To hold a party together by bribing first one interest group and then another is not an inspiring form of statesmanship.”
Last week, an official of the National Capital Commission said the branch of the agency responsible for training these student ambassadors “is aware that sections of the ... manuals are out of date and that they include information that is not accurate.”
“The branch is currently undertaking a review of the approach,” Judy Benvie said in a letter to The Canadian Press.
The commission’s media spokesman, Jean Wolff, says that since the student ambassador program was begun in 1984, there have been no complaints about any information provided.
Wolff also noted the manuals are being phased out in favour of digital resources displayed on iPods, with information vetted by an external committee of experts.
The existing manuals are based largely on a version first compiled in the 1990s, he said, with annual updates suggested by the students themselves.
“The students have to maintain a neutral and open approach” with tourists, Wolff added in an interview.
The National Capital Commission, created in 1959, is being radically downsized this year. The federal budget in March announced the arm’s-length body will lose many of its annual cultural events, including Winterlude and the Canada Day shows on Parliament Hill, as well as the student guide program.
The Canadian Heritage Department will take over these programs as of Sept. 30, a move the Harper government says will make the events more nationally focused than they were under the “locally based” commission.