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Sunday
May062012

No more experience of a lifetime

James Jackson
The Woolwich Observer
Published May 5, 2012

When Kristen Horst graduated from Elmira District Secondary School last year the Hawkesville native wasn’t sure what she wanted to do or where she wanted to go in pursuit of her post-secondary education.

She decided that rather than waste a year and a considerable amount of money on a college or university program she might not enjoy, she wanted to take a year to weigh her decisions. At the same time, however, the socially-conscious teen wanted to do more with her time off than make money for herself.

“I wanted to do something for the betterment of someone else,” the 18-year-old explained.

After chatting with a family friend, Horst learned about Katimavik (Iqaluit for “meeting place”), a national volunteer service organization formed in the late 1970s for youth aged 17-21. According to the Katimavik website, the mandate of the program is to impact youth positively by contributing to their development, to impact communities positively by putting volunteers to work in the community, and to impact the country positively by exposing youth to regional, cultural and linguistic diversity.

It sounded like the right opportunity at the right time in her life, so Horst applied, and in January she found herself on a flight to Calgary to meet eight other strangers to start their journey as participants in the program.

For the past four months, the nine youth have lived together and worked as volunteers in two distinct Canadian communities. For three months in Calgary, Horst – whose hometown only has about 300 residents – got to experience life in the big city for the first time while volunteering 35 hours a week as a teaching assistant in a French elementary school.

In April the group flew north to Iqaluit, Nunavut, where they’ve volunteered in schools, women’s shelters and soup kitchens, and were an integral part in organizing the annual festival of Toonik Tyme, a celebration that welcomes the sun back to the land after months of near-darkness.

They will remain in Iqaluit until the end of June, and there are hundreds of similar groups of young adults across Canada right now doing similar work in other communities with Katimavik.

“It’s like a gift. I can’t believe I’m able to do this,” she said of the experience during a phone interview from Iqaluit.

Yet Horst and the rest of the Katimavik volunteers are the last of their kind. In the federal budget tabled at the end of March funding for the group was completely cut.

Page 269 of the budget outlines the reasons for those cuts; “The government is eliminating the Katimavik program, as it reaches a relatively small number of participants annually at a relatively high cost per participant.”

Katimavik receives almost all of its funding from the federal government, and as a result is (mostly) free for participants. Katimavik hopefuls pay an application and participation fee, as well as a transportation deposit, but the vast majority of the funding – some $15 million annually – is provided by the government, and is used to cover costs ranging from transportation and housing to food and other basic necessities.

Federal funding comes from the Department of Canadian Heritage and from the Stratégie d’action jeunesse 2009-2014 initiative in Quebec; with costs in the range of about $2,000 per month per student, and about $380 million of taxpayer’s money over the past 30 years, Minister of Canadian Heritage James Moore said it was time to end the program.

“Ending funding for Katimavik is one of the easiest decision I’ve ever made,” the minister said.

The cuts have come despite the fact that the federal government has a funding agreement with Katimavik that runs until next March.

Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, former Katimavik chair and current member of the Canadian Heritage committee in Ottawa, says the fact that the government is cutting its funding before the current agreement expires is a “mean-spirited decision” and a “slap in the face” for the hundreds of youth preparing for the next round of trips, which was set to begin in July.

“The government didn’t say ‘we won’t renew the funding agreement in 2013’ they said 'no, we’re cutting off the funding now,'” said an impassioned Trudeau in a phone interview from his Ottawa office.
“It’s a tremendous slap in the face.”

Katimavik was created under Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government out of a desire to help solve Canada’s unity problem in the late '70s. Launched in 1977, youth from across Canada cycled through three different communities where they lived together and worked at non-profit organizations, while also learning about the country’s cultural diversity.

The program flourished during its early years, reaching a peak of about 5,000 participants in 1985-86. When Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservative party won a majority government in 1984, the program was cut two years later, prompting Katimavik founder and Liberal senator Jacques Hebert to go on a 21-day hunger strike, to no avail.

Hebert worked to ensure that Katimavik would survive by turning it into an outdoor recreation training centre in his home province of Quebec, until the Liberals were elected to a majority government under Jean Chrétien in 1993.

The following year Youth Service Canada helped form a 66-person pilot program to restore Katimavik as a national program, and the year after that the Department of Heritage agreed to provide ongoing funding, allowing the number of projects and participants to triple.

The program once again grew in popularity following its revival; in 2005-06 some 1,150 youth participated in 105 communities across Canada, and since its inception more than 31,000 youth have taken part in the program.

Yet Trudeau laments that Katimavik has failed to reach the lofty status his father had envisioned for it when it was created some 35 years ago. The elder Trudeau wanted it to become a nation-building program that challenged youth to become active and engaged and committed citizens to this country, and while it has met those goals, it has failed to attract the number of participants he had hoped for.

“The one thing he always said to himself and Jacques Hebert was ‘don’t give me a program that is going to benefit a couple hundred kids per year,’” said Trudeau.

“That was his vision for the program, and unfortunately it’s never quite gotten to the numbers that we’d like to.”

When Stephen Harper and the Conservatives defeated Paul Martin’s minority Liberals in 2006, funding for the program was cut by 25 per cent. In October of that year the government announced a three year funding agreement in the sum of $15 million per year, down from close to $20 million under the Chretien government.

The impacts of those cuts were felt immediately. To balance their budget, Katimavik was forced to reduce the number of participants each year to about 1,000,  and the program was shortened from nine months to six.

Finally Katimavik – which until then had been free – began charging fees for participants, including a $300 non-refundable participation fee to cover accident insurance and other administrative costs, and a $350 travel deposit that is paid once volunteers are accepted to the program and is reimbursed upon successful completion of the program.

Anyone who quits the program or is asked to leave for violating behavioural standards is not reimbursed the $350.

It was during this time of cuts that Trudeau began to see the writing on the wall for Katimavik, and he heard rumblings across Parliament Hill that if the Tories ever achieved a majority government, it would be cut.

This past year the Canadian Heritage department conducted a summative evaluation of the Katimavik program, and other than a few efficiencies here and program tweaks there, it met the overall funding goals of the government.

“Minister Moore told me a couple years ago that he was going to cut Katimavik as soon as he could,” Trudeau said, despite the fact that Moore’s own government agency said it was a quality program.

While Trudeau maintains that the Tories have cut Katimavik out of political spite and because it was established under a Liberal government and by a former Liberal senator, the government says that just isn’t the case.

Moore failed to respond to numerous requests for an interview for this story, but Kitchener-Conestoga MP Harold Albrecht was able to speak on the subject. He fully supports his government’s decision to pull the plug on the program, and reaffirmed their position that it was a poor use of taxpayer’s money.

“Obviously, for some individuals, it has been a good program and I’m not negating the fact that some good has come out of this program for those individuals and the areas that they have served,” Albrecht said.
“My primary concern is the high cost of it.”

He said in an era of financial belt-tightening in all facets of government spending, perhaps it was time for Katimavik participants and alumni to fundraise and attract private and corporate sponsorship to keep their program alive, rather than rely on a government handout for “99 per cent” of its funding.

“I’ve worked with dozens and dozens of young people who have gone on different trips and raised funds for that. Part of the training and development is that willingness to go to someone, explain what they are doing, sell it to them and convince them that this is a good investment of their money.

“To me that is the big piece that this program is missing.”

Yet Trudeau counters that argument by saying the economic, social and cultural benefits generated through Katimavik in communities like Iqaluit more than make up for the costs of the program. The former school teacher also said that youth who attend Katimavik make better life choices with regards to post-secondary schooling, saving the country millions on subsidized education costs.

In its financial statement from 2010-11, Katimavik estimates that the 1,462 youths that participated that year generated almost $11 million worth of volunteer hours across Canada by helping 500 different community partners in 64 communities.

“Just from that standpoint it’s a pretty good program, and the benefit to young people would more than make up for the remaining $4 million,” Trudeau said.

The Liberal MP also drew comparisons to the cadet program, which Katimavik was partially modeled on when it was formed. The cadet program costs the government about $200 million a year to operate and attracts about 50,000 youth at a cost of about $4,000 per month – or twice the cost of Katimavik – and yet the cadet program saw no cuts in the last budget, he said.

“I think the cadets do great work and it’s an excellent program … but so does Katimavik, and it does it for cheaper and it helps the community as well. On a basis like that you can’t make a comparison,” Trudeau said.

Albrecht, however, maintains that the Canadian government is shifting its youth funding priorities to other more efficient programs such as the YMCA, Encounters with Canada, and the Forum for Young Canadians, all of which will reach more young people than Katimavik can.

“We’re investing $105 million, which will allow 100,000 young people to learn about Canada through the Canadian Heritage Department,” he said.

Rumours of the cuts began circulating among Katimavik volunteers a few weeks before they were made public and while Horst was still in Calgary. When the announcement of the cuts was made official on Mar. 29, they sprang into action, writing letters to their respective MPs and to the Prime Minister’s office to request the program be saved, and they contacted the media to get the word about the work they were doing.

“This is something that I’m passionate about and I’m a part of this program and this choice by the government affects me directly, so it’s taught me a lot about using my vote and having my voice heard,” said Horst, who said she now knows that she wants to be a teacher, and is heading to Fleming College in the fall to begin her studies – thanks to Katimavik.

When word of the cuts reached Iqaluit, Horst said everyone in the community was heartbroken because of how much they rely on the volunteer work that Katimavik provides them. Having seen their impact on the community with her own eyes, Horst knows the investment is well worth it.

“It may be a lot of money to spend on one teenager, but it’s not just that teen which you’re putting the funding towards, it’s all the people in the community that are impacted too,” she said.

Horst and Trudeau were also hesitant about the idea of asking more participants to pay more out of their own pockets in an effort to keep the program running; both echoed the same sentiment that by asking families to pay even a few thousand dollars would limit the number of people able to take part.

“This way it’s something that is open to everyone,” said Horst. “Adding the cost of Katimavik and future school costs, and subtracting six months of income, it would have looked really overwhelming.”

Trudeau will continue to fight for the survival of the program, but he knows it’s an uphill battle to change the mind of this Conservative government. He vowed that when the Liberal party returns to power in Ottawa not only will Katimavik be reinstated, but opportunities for young Canadians will be massively expanded.

In light of the recent spending scandal encompassing Conservative MP and Minister for International Cooperation Bev Oda, as well as the Department of National Defence and its questionable F-35 contracts, Trudeau said the message those scandals are sending to Canadians is a true indication of Tory priorities.

“There is a real narrative of what this government is willing to spend on … versus the kinds of investment in our future that everyone knows makes a huge difference.”

Albrecht, however, is all but certain that Katimavik is finished.

“The likelihood of this program being revived or put on life support I think is very, very slim.”

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