In 1986, the author, publisher, world traveler and Liberal senator staged a 21-day hunger strike to protest the Mulroney government’s plan to eliminate funding for Katimavik, a widely-praised youth leadership and community awareness program Hébert had helped launch in 1977.
Jean Chretien, then a Bay Street lawyer in between elected gigs, and Walter Baker, a University of Ottawa professor, agreed to create a private, non-profit organization to raise money for the program. Nine years later, Chretien, by then the prime minister, restored public funding for the organization.
Each year, Katimavik chooses 1,100 young Canadians between the ages of 17 and 21 and fans them out, in teams of 10, to other regions of Canada to spend six life-changing months living together as volunteers with local community-based organizations. Among its 30,000 alumni: Patrick Bechet, the CFO of Google.
In my province of Nova Scotia, Katimavik volunteers are embedded with close to 20 diverse community groups, including the Sackville Rivers Association, a do-good organization working to restore a local watershed.
What does the group get from these youthful, come-from-away volunteers? “It’s the enthusiasm,” Walter Regan, the association’s president, told the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. “This new enthusiasm really drives us and helps us do our good work.”
Katimavik also enables Canadian young people to experience the vastness and complexity of their own country first-hand. “We had youth from the prairies who had never seen the ocean,” Regan says. “We had one aboriginal youth from Winnipeg who just couldn’t get over lobster. She’d never had a lobster.”
The program has been praised by the United Nations. Other countries have tried to copy it.
None of that was enough to save Katimavik from federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s swinging ideological axe. In his first you-can’t-stop-us-now, majority-government budget in March, Flaherty announced he was cutting $15 million in annual funding for the organization.
And Katimavik may not be the only seventies-era citizen-building program to disappear. Ottawa’s Canadian International Development Agency, which helps underwrite Canada World Youth – another Jacques Hébert-inspired non-government organization that has provided 31,000 young people the chance to participate in international volunteer programs over the past 40 years – took a $319-million hit to its already frozen budget. Will the trickle-down effect drown Canada World Youth too?
Forget for a moment the intergenerational battle the Harper government’s budget has supposedly triggered between us entitled-to-ourentitlements boomers and the rest of you, fend-for-yourselves under-54s.
Consider instead the government’s much more dangerous war against our young people — and our future.
Shortly before Flaherty introduced his budget, Ottawa also announced it was shuttering Service Canada’s Jobs Centres for Youth, a service that has been helping students land summer work for 40 years. It will be replaced by a website. The purpose: to save Ottawa $6.5 million.
Today, nearly two million Canadians carry student loan debt worth $20 billion. The average debt for graduating university students is $27,000.
Those lucky enough to land, dragging their debt behind them, in today’s job market turn out not to be lucky at all.
“The economic recovery has been almost non-existent for younger Canadians,” economist Francis Fong wrote in a recent TD Economic Report called The Plight of Younger Workers.
To make matters worse, too many profitable companies have found it convenient to exploit bright young people with what have become rotating, unpaid, never-lead-to-jobs “experiential” internships and short-term-contractswithout-benefits that make it impossible for them to fully join the workforce or get on with adult lives.
In March, Statistics Canada’s latest numbers showed unemployment for 15-24-year-olds topped 14.7 per cent, twice the rate for the rest of us. Even those distressing numbers – 27,000 fewer young people had jobs than at the same time a year earlier – mask a worse reality. Statscan only counts those drawing employment insurance benefits or welfare, not those who’ve simply given up.
Where is Jacques Hébert when we need him? Unfortunately, he died in 2007. Which means it’s now up to the rest of us.