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Trudeau-era youth program pleads to be spared from Tory axe

Katimavik was saved from the chopping block once before. A quarter of a century later, former participants and other supporters are again rallying to try to rescue the national youth service program.

The Montreal-based project, which sends young people to volunteer in communities across Canada, was one of the casualties of the federal budget tabled Thursday.

Within hours, online petitions and letter-writing campaigns were being organized and at least seven Save-Katimavik Facebook pages were created.

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Katimavik also asked former participants to share testimonies from their "life-changing experience," in the hope their words could bring a reprieve to the embattled program.

"I urge everyone who supports us to express their views. It's now or never," Katimavik CEO Daniel Lapointe said in an interview.

At the same time, Mr. Lapointe also had to manage a likely wind-down of the organization.

Mr. Lapointe spent the morning briefing staff at the Montreal head office. The program has about 50 permanent office employees and 50 contract employees in the field.

Katimavik just ended the second of a three-year $45-million funding agreement with Ottawa. On paper, the program is still expecting $14-million in federal funds until March 31 of next year.

However, the government will only keep financing Katimavik until the end of June 2012 to allow the current group of participants to finish their program.

The program was cut because "it reaches a relatively small number of participants annually at a relatively high cost per participant," the budget said.

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Mr. Lapointe said the decision was surprising because Heritage Canada recently released a program evaluation that said Katimavik met the department's objectives.

Katimavik is worthy, he said, because it is not a short-term program.

Participants – about 1,000 each year – work and live in other parts of Canada. "We'll take youth from the Atlantic to British Columbia. Youth from Quebec to the Prairies. Over six months they have time to focus, to let values take root in them," Mr. Lapointe said. "They become responsible, involved citizens."

Katimavik was created in 1977, the brainchild of Jacques Hébert, the long-time confidante of then Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau. In 1986, Mr. Hébert, then a senator, went on a three-week hunger strike when Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government tried to axe Katimavik.

"Nowadays there isn't a big personality like the senator but there are lots of voices that can add up," Mr. Lapointe said.

While Mr. Lapointe said he and the program are apolitical, there was suspicion elsewhere that Katimavik was targeted because it is deeply associated with Trudeau-era liberalism.

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"Katimavik empowers young Canadians. So CPC hates it," Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, the eldest son of the former prime minister, tweeted after the program's demise was reported earlier this week by the Huffington Post.

Conservative blogger Stephen Taylor, a director at the National Citizens Coalition, shot back at Mr. Trudeau by mentioning "the millions of taxpayers that have paid for it. Fundraise for your own legacy."

A former participant, meanwhile, spoke of the formative quality of the program and the way it made participants aware of the scope of the nation.

Halifax resident Calvin Horne, who grew up in Calgary, said he was grateful that Katimavik gave him a chance, as a 17-year-old participant in 2005, to live and do volunteer work in small towns like Wawa, Ont., Trois-Rivières, Que., and Deer Lake, Newfoundland.

"I wasn't too sure about what I wanted to do with myself. It gave me great insights," Mr. Horne said.

"I am really disappointed with this decision. It deprives communities and young people of an opportunity to grow and build something together."

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About the Author
National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More

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