OTTAWA - Meet Parka.
She's a curious and fun-loving beaver from Wood Buffalo National Park. She loves exploring and sugar-free root beer. She is always clothed and careful to keep her tail down so as not to attract unwanted attention from overly friendly boy beavers.
Parks Canada thinks she's just the ticket to get kids into national parks and historic sites.
There's just one problem: no one has the foggiest idea who Parka is.
That's why the federal agency is now looking for a company that can give its little-known mascot an Elmo-esque public profile.
It's part of a larger effort to boost Parks Canada's flagging brand. The federal agency is looking for ways to make money without raising user fees as it grapples with a steady drop-off in attendance.
Earlier this year, Parks Canada hired a Toronto marketing firm for advice on how to better promote itself and its attractions. That's on top of a separate, $50,000 study commissioned to identify lucrative new ideas.
A clothing line has already been launched featuring the agency's iconic beaver logo — one Parks Canada says has generated $100,000 since May in retail sales.
Parka is another piece of the money-making puzzle. Parks Canada introduced its new mascot last summer, but the character hasn't exactly become a household name.
"Her presence delights young children and provides a perfect photo opportunity wherever she goes," says a notice posted on a government contracts website.
"However, most are unaware of who she is and her link to Parks Canada."
So, who is Parka?
An invitation to bidders goes into painstaking detail about what she is supposed to be — and what she is not.
In her real-life, costumed form, the young female beaver is described as silent and funny, and always in the company of a uniformed Parks Canada worker who can double as a photographer.
And she is resolutely G-rated.
"Parka is always in a Parks Canada uniform," the document says. "She is never naked."
"Her tail is generally lowered (when a female beaver's tail is high, this may suggest unwanted meanings)."
The contract to raise Parka's profile is worth $20,000.
Andrew Campbell of Parks Canada says the agency is trying to lower the average age of visitors to national parks and historic sites from the current level of 51 years old.
"One of the ideas that came from staff suggestions was the relaunch of a Parks Canada mascot," Campbell said in an interview.
Canada's national parks are in need of a transfusion of young blood, he added, "because that market had in fact dropped off significantly for us."
Parks Canada has even looked Down Under for inspiration. Parks Victoria in Australia created a mascot called Ranger Roo, a khaki-clad kangaroo with binoculars around its neck, that Campbell said is a model for what Parks Canada hopes to accomplish with Parka.
"I don't think we're necessarily looking at Elmo-level," said Campbell, the agency's vice-president of external relations.
"But we have started working with the people that manage Geronimo Stilton and Geronimo Stilton-type of products. And we have looked at Ranger Roo in Australia."
For the uninitiated, Geronimo Stilton is the cheese-chomping mouse journalist extraordinaire who stars in a popular series of children's books of the same name.
"If we had people that could say — and kids especially — that Parka immediately would bring to mind the great history and natural treasures of our country, that would be our goal."
The agency is in a bit of a bind when it comes to making money. Parks Canada can't charge people more to get into its sites because the federal government has frozen fees until 2013 for the general public and 2014 for commercial groups.
The agency manages 42 national parks and 167 national historic sites, but only charges fees at 125 locations. Those fees cover everything from entry to national parks and historic sites to permits for fishing and camp fires.
Meanwhile, fewer people are venturing into national parks and historic sites.
The number of visits to Parks Canada attractions fell from 21.8 million in 2006-07 to 20.2 million in 2010-11 — a seven-per-cent drop.