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.


This summer, I’m looking forward to a lot of concerts – the Vancouver Folk Festival, Live at Squamish, and Ben Harper, along with Said the Whale, Hey Ocean!, Hannah Georgas, Neko Case, Mother Mother, The Be Good Tanyas, Dan Mangan, and Daniel Wesley, who will all be featured acts at Summer Live, a three-day celebration of 125 years since the city was incorporated put on by the City of Vancouver.

While Summer Live is an admission-free event, and I bought my ticket to Ben Harper, I’ll be volunteering at both the Vancouver Folk Festival and Live at Squamish – which is also what I did last summer. This will be my fourth year at Folk Fest, and it’s the highlight of my year (though this year it may have some pretty stiff competition from my road trip down to Los Angeles for the Animal Rights National Conference that I’ll be leaving for the Monday after the ‘Fest).

There are a lot of reasons and factors that contribute to how amazing the Folk Festival is in both my mind and my soul, and volunteering makes it extra-special. The music, the commradery of attendees and between the bands who perform alongside one another, the beauty of Jericho Park and the beach just outside the fences, and the ideas that are floated, not the least of which is that a better world is possible. Then on the inside track that volunteering gives you access to are the delicious, hot food that’s provided (with vegan options! and a lot of the musicians eat with the regular folk all weekend, too), space near the side of the main stage to watch the headliners from, and a wrap party that the two years I’ve gone to has gone on waaaaay past 2am and leaves your legs pretty upset with you the next couple of days from all the dancing.


Luluc at the Vancouver Folk Festival last summer


If you happen to be so lucky as I know I am, volunteering might just give you the opportunity to meet someone famous. For me, that was Michael Franti the first year I volunteered (who was also the reason I volunteered). I got the chance to talk to him when he was in the fenced off backstage area within the larger backstage area that is the volunteers’ space, and gave him some Pumpkin Oatmeal Raisin Cookies I’d made for him. Now that was the highlight of my summer, for sure. And I was in awe – he really had a quality about him that I can only describe as majesty, and I felt like he really knew a lot about this world, and was probably harbouring an old soul.

So far I’ve mostly talked about what I’ve gotten out of volunteering that’s easily measurable, but there’s so much more to it. I’ve also been fortunate enough in the past to participate in what was then a 9-month stint in Katimavik, and I learned an unending list of things about the world, myself, and communicating and living with people. It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything else in the world, and it involved a lot of hours of volunteering. 40 per week, plus occational extras, to be exact. And some of it definitely felt back breaking, and a few days even involved bruises that had me almost worried for my internal organs (those days involved going into a logging site, selecting suitable logs, and hauling them out by hand to a waiting truck to be transported back to our work sponsor’s backyard, where we then spent something like a week peeling the bark off of them to ready them for their next incarnation as a foot bridge on one of the trails we were maintaining as part of our volunteering in Port Alberni, BC).

Katimavik is an amazing, coast-to-coast example of just what volunteering does not only for yourself, but also for those you volunteer for. A 2002 study about the program determined that the net impact to benefit the Canadian economy through the program (taking into account factors such as a participant’s increased employability at the conclusion of the program as a result of skills learned therein) is $8,812 per participant. That’s dang impressive, especially when you consider that approximately 1,000 youth aged 17-21 participate in the program every year.

What I wanted to point out here is that, even though probably a majority of Canadians have never heard of Katimavik (basing this solely on my own story preface of, ‘Have you heard of Katimavik?’ and the percentage of people who have vs. who haven’t heard of the program), you’ve probably benefitted either directly or indirectly in some way because of it.

Katimavictims as we like to call ourselves (Will Ferguson also wrote a memoir of his time spent in Katimavik in its 80s hey-day, called I Was A Teenage Katimavictim, which only spurred us on in my group) hold such positions as my own trail building, data entry, and high school library assistance, as well as in food banks, at Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Habitat for Humanity, in daycares, at museums, and all sorts of non-profits you may never have heard of, thought of, or realized were non-profit.

So there’s just a little taste of what volunteering can do for you, along with what it might be doing for you right now – whether you’re aware or oblivious of it. I highly recommend volunteering. I don’t even realize I’m doing it half the time, or at least it doesn’t really feel like it when I’m at my current recurring gig Co-Hosting the Animal Voices Radio Show in Vancovuer every week. That’s an opportunity I’ve wanted since I was 10 years old, and am now seeing come to fruition. It’s also something that wouldn’t be possible if I wasn’t willing and ready to volunteer when opportunities come my way.

I’d like to invite you to try volunteering today, be it as a means to get in to a concert, or scrubbing cages and floors at an animal shelter. You’ll be a better and happier version of yourself if you do.