The federal government is consolidating its work and study programs for young people under a new banner, the Canada Corps, an announcement that was so hastily crafted that for a few hours yesterday Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham seemed confused about whether it was foreign aid or a youth-training initiative.
Paul Martin tried to dress up the plan in his first major policy speech as Prime Minister, calling it a "new initiative . . . harnessing the energy of young Canadians and allowing them to learn while they contribute" to helping poor countries.
Mr. Martin said one of the distinct ways Canada can help developing countries "is to provide the expertise and experience of Canadians in justice, in federalism, in pluralistic democracy."
But when pressed for details, Mr. Graham, whose department is to run the Canada Corps, said it is a consolidation of existing youth programs from Foreign Affairs and other departments.
Mr. Graham initially eschewed any comparison with the U.S. government's Peace Corps.
"It's not going to be the Peace Corps because the Peace Corps was very much more focused exclusively on aid. This is focused on giving young people an opportunity to be engaged in the world. It's going to enrich their life experience and thereby they're going to make a better contribution to Canada," Mr. Graham said yesterday morning.
But by late afternoon, Mr. Graham was back in tune with Mr. Martin. The Foreign Affairs Minister said the Canada Corps is an assistance program that "will allow Canadian values to be promoted abroad by young people."
Mr. Graham said he couldn't provide many details. "This is an idea in formation. . . . It hasn't been totally fleshed out."
The Canada Corps idea was part of the work of the government transition team, but it dropped off the radar scope until just a few days ago, officials say.
One official said the idea was revived as a result of a conversation between Mr. Martin and U.S. President George W. Bush. Mr. Martin asked what Canada and the United States could do together to make the world a better place. Mr. Bush reportedly replied that Canada could help promote Western democratic values, such as respect for human rights and the rule of law.
Mr. Martin is trying to make Canadian assistance for poor countries a centrepiece of his foreign policy, but his ambitions are being restrained by fiscal realities.
There will be no new money for the Canada Corps in the coming federal budget, Mr. Graham said, but in the future the program might expand through partnerships with provincial governments and universities.
Mr. Graham was unable to say how many young people might be involved in the Canada Corps or how much money will be involved after the consolidation of programs. "This is the problem, we already have many youth involved in programs in different departments" and the government doesn't have a clear picture of what each is doing.