Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Katimavik founder Jacques Hébert goes on hunger strike to reinstate youth program 

    This year, Senator Jacques Hébert went on a hunger strike for 21 days in a desperate attempt to influence the government of Brian Mulroney to retain the Katimavik youth program that had founded a decade earlier. 

    Indeed, Katimavik was launched in 1977 as an experiential youth education program. Its founder, Senator Jacques Hébert, received full support from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, with whom he had a long friendship. Several years before they had travelled to China together, and wrote their experiences in the book Two Innocents in Red China, published in 1968. 

    The first program of Katimavik (an Inuktitut word that means “meeting place”) attracted 1000 young people who volunteered in 80 communities spattered across the nation.  Each cycle of the program lasted 9 months, and during that period groups of youth lived and volunteered in three different communities in Canada, staying for three months in each one.  For example, one group could start in Dawson City, Yukon, then move to Val D’or, Quebec, and finish their last trimester in Corner Brook, Newfoundland.   

    In a country like Canada, enormous and diverse, it is difficult to understand everyone’s unique culture.  Katimavik started at a time when youth unemployment was at 17% and the country was trying to define itself.  Trudeau and Hebert believed that the answer lay with young men and women.  They believed in giving Canadian youth nearly a year off to volunteer and live in different communities in Canada, learn French or English, and focus on personal development in order to build a better country. 

    Katimavik was not directly modelled after another program per se, but shared some similarities with a few of its predecessors.  It was inspired by programs like those carried out in British Columbia during the Great Depression of the 1930s, one undertaken by the Company of Young Canadians during the mid-1960s, and one called “Opportunities for Youth” that was implemented during the early 1970s. While those programs focussed primarily on work projects, Katimavik combines work experience with personal growth through their learning programs, using a four part adult education model: anticipation, action, reflection, and recognition. 

    The program has gone through a number of experiments over the decades.  In the first years there was a voluntary military component where participants would work with the Canadian Navy for one trimester (participants could apply to this portion and be randomly selected).  The coordinating officer with Katimavik was Roméo Dallaire. There have been also exchanges with California. However, the program remains almost exclusively a non-military, non-secular Canadian leadership program. 

    In its first year of operation, the program had a budget of $10 million and included 1000 participants.  After a failed attempt of Prime Minister Joe Clark to cut it, the re-elected Pierre Trudeau increased funding to $20 million in 1984-85 and along with it a dramatic increase in participants. At this time, the program grew considerably with a budget of $40 million in 1985-1986 with almost 5000 youth participating in more than 400 communities. Given that almost all of the funding came from the government of Canada and that the program was created by a Liberal government, changes in political party power have kept the program on tenuous ground. 

    This was precisely what happened in 1986, when the Conservatives were elected again and Prime Minister Mulroney cancelled the program. Senator Jacques Hébert went on a hunger strike for 21 days to try and influence the government to retain the program, but his efforts were in vain, as Mulroney cut the program. After a hiatus of eight years, the program was reinstated in 1994 when the liberals were elected again into government and Jean Chretien became Prime Minister of Canada. 

    Today, in the first decade of the 21st century, Katimavik is still operating. It is Canada’s largest youth service-learning organization for youth between 17 and 21 years old, and remains remarkably similar to its 1977 ancestor. Today, groups of 11 participants are selected on demographic criteria, and not according to economic, social or academic status like some other exchange programs.  In each group there are equal numbers of men and women, one third Francophone and two-thirds Anglophones, and participants are selected to represent five different regions of the country: Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, Prairie/NWT/Nunavut, and BC/Yukon.  The program is free for participants as the government pays all travel, food, and lodging costs. Participants received $1/day in 1977 ($3/day today) as pocket money (for mailing, personal effects, etc), and those who successfully complete the program receive an honorarium of $1000 (an amount that has not changed since 1977). 

    Projects exchange by region and are usually set in groups of three within 200 km of each other to share resources.  Project Coordinators oversee three projects that are in turn supervised by Project Leaders who live in the Katimavik house. Today, participants work at least 35 hours at a volunteer placement.  The placement is with a non-profit organization and can range in variety.  For example, participants work with local schools, in retirement homes, doing manual work on a park or helping maintain the community.  Volunteer supervisors establish learning goals with participants.  For two weeks in each community participants live with host families. Two participants stay home from work each week to do the grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning.  These House Managers work under a tight budget of about $5/person/day (current budget).  House managers must follow the Katimavik healthy living guidelines which restricts buying ‘junk food.’  Each meal is supposed to be healthy. A time honoured tradition in Katimavik is to bake bread every week (which gives each Katima-house the wonderful homey smell). 

    Katimavik is organized around five learning programs: Healthy Living, Environment, Leadership, Cultural Discovery, and Second Official Language.  Participants are expected to eat well, exercise, and learn invaluable skills such as conflict resolution, problem solving and effective communication, and also to improve their language skills in both official languages of Canada (one trimester is spent in a Francophone community and two in Anglophone communities).   

    Participants are put into committees in each trimester and are responsible for spending the learning budgets, deliberating among the group, doing the research, planning and facilitating activities.  Self-guided learning is very important in the program.  The Project Leader can play a big part in facilitating this process, but it is ultimately the participants who have the power over their own education. 

    From an adult education perspective, Katimavik has blazed the trail to find new and creative methods for young people to learn.  There are few other programs in Canada that involve the objectives of Katimavik (to contribute substantially to the personal, social and professional development of the participants; to promote community-service; to offer a diverse experience fostering a better understanding of the Canadian reality). 

    Katimavik is a cultural institution in the Canadian youth landscape.  Since its beginnings, more than 25,000 participants have benefited from the program in more than 2,000 communities.  Approximately 1,200 youth participate in the program each year, 650 community non-profit organizations over 105 projects.  I have personally been part of the program as a project leader three times: first in Eastend, Saskatchewan (2003), then in Corner Brook, Newfoundland (2005), and finally in White River, Ontario (2006).  I witnessed young people learn incredible things through this program and how they experience significant transform: they become stronger individuals, team members and community members, and better citizens of Canada and the world.  This country is expansive and is very difficult to understand each of the many cultures that live here.  Katimavik participants don’t understand all of Canada when they finish a program, but they understand very well three different communities in three very distinct parts of our vast, richly diverse country.  Based in my experience, it is my opinion that every young Canadian should have a chance to participate in a program that can give so much to youth and communities as Katimavik. 
Sources: - Katimavik Website 

Sherradan, Michael W., Reflections on Katimavik, and Innovative Canadian Youth Program. Pergamon Journals, Washington University, 1986. - Wikipedia  

Prepared by Stephen Sloot, OISE/University of Toronto, 2007

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