Katimavik Profile

December 14, 2011

The following is what I my interview with Will Ferguson was for (my Research business profile assignment on Katimavik). It’s not perfect, but at least it exists where it didn’t two days ago.

Visionary Jacques Hébert created Katimavik in 1977, intent on unifying Canada by bringing Anglo and Francophone youth together to explore Canadian diversity.

Inuktitut for “meeting place,” Katimavik is Canada’s leading national youth volunteer service program, with each project household consisting of 11 youth aged 17 to 21 chosen as a regional representation of Canadian society.

A project leader oversees each group, sharing living space, meals and experiences with the participants on a daily basis. The project leader liaises with local community projects where each participant holds a fulltime volunteer position, as well as with regional and head offices.

The program is unique in that it covers the cost of most expenses (including program and learning activities, food, housing, and travel), with only a minimal $50 application fee and a $175 fee for accepted participants.

Hébert died in 2007, but said in his 2001 travel book “Katima…What?” that “Katimavik [was] created . . . to wrench the greatest number of young Canadians from a life that’s lousy, selfish, closed to the world, whether they’re sons of the bourgeoisie, or daughters of the unemployed, students lost in the absurd mazes of our education system, or dropouts in the midst of despair, young people who still have ideals, or apprentice drug addicts who no longer believe in anything.”

Willing to die for his cause, Senator Hébert went on a 21-day hunger strike in the lobby of the Canadian senate in 1986 after federal funding was cut to the program. The funding cuts came at a time when the program had just expanded, from about 1000 participants in 1985 to 5000 the following year.

Hébert’s friends Jean Chrétien and Walter Baker came to his rescue, creating a private non-profit corporation to raise the necessary funds to keep the program going, though it would be reduced to an outdoor recreation training program until funding was reinstated in 1994.

Funding for the program continues to be mainly government-supported through the Department of Canadian Heritage, but plans are underway to diversify through corporate and private partnerships after accepting a multi-year financial deal that reduced resources. Downsizing certain aspects of the program followed, including closing two of five regional offices.

Katimavik has seen many changes in its 34 years. Starting with 33 participants its first year, lore has it that early participants had to build their own beds and some even claim to have worked at building their own houses while living in tents.

In just the past decade Katimavik has seen incarnations of seven- and nine-month programs taking participants to three different provinces, and has transformed into four six-month programs geared toward specialized experiences.

Today’s program choices are Cultural Discovery and Civic Engagement, Ecocitizenship and Active Living, Katimavik Horizons (wherein participants tailor the program to their group’s inclination based on Katimavik’s main objectives), and Second Language and Cultural Identity.

All projects seek to engage youth volunteers in experiential learning focused on civic engagement, healthy lifestyle choices, official languages, cultural discovery and environmental stewardship – skills meant to help them adapt and integrate back into their communities as civic participants after the program is complete.

Arguably Katimavik’s most famous past participant, author Will Ferguson completed the program in 1985, just shy of the political hoopla.

“My career path changed dramatically from political science to fine arts,” Ferguson said over the phone from his home in Calgary.

Forgoing his initial intent to pursue politics, which Ferguson almost laughed about today, Katimavik afforded him the chance to travel for the first time and exposure to the Canadian experience outside his small Northern Alberta town. Ferguson soon developed a love for Canada and travel that has since been channeled into several books, including “I Was a Teenage Katima-victim” based on his stint in the program.

“As time goes on and you look at the big picture, it’s a great experience,” he said in contrast of the scathing tone of his Katimavik memoir, which was based on his 19 year-old self’s voice as written in the journals his first project leader urged him to keep.

Ferguson said he still recommends the program to youth, and recently went to dinner with Theresa Mitchell, Katimavik’s Director of Resources Development, to discuss the program’s future.

Will Ferguson is among the 30,000 participants who have gone through the program since its inception, but Katimavik’s impact reaches much further than just its participants. Katimavik has changed countless lives for the better through interaction with work sponsors, community members, billet families, employees, and those who participants have volunteered to serve, whether they realize it or not.


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