The untapped well: Is it time for a national youth service policy?

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Last year, nearly ten thousand young Canadians were deprived of the chance to serve their country. This is why many people believe it's time for a national youth service policy. With record numbers of Canadian youth clamouring for a chance to help communities by volunteering in civic service, Canada stands poised to make use of an enthusiastic resource to help build a better country. But the nonprofit community is disappointed at the perceived lack of will by the federal government to legislate a policy.

Fostering a sense of civic pride and duty

Though the government encourages youth volunteerism through various exchange programs - funded by Canadian Heritage - only one of those provides a long-term, national youth service participation program. It's called Katimavik. And they're convinced they have the best model to foster civic pride and duty in Canada's youth. Katimavik received more than 10,000 applications for its 2004-2005 programs, but could only accommodate 1,155 participants because of lack of resources.

Founded in 1975 by Senator Jacques Herbert (a passionate proponent of youth service), Montreal-based Katimavik provides a nine-month volunteer service program for youth aged 17-21. Participants stay in different regions of the country, live with youth from other communities, and work an average of 35 hours per week on various projects with local nonprofit organizations. They gain leadership and work skills necessary for employment afterward. They also work and learn in both official languages. It's a one-of-a-kind experience; one that Jean-Guy Bigeau, executive director, insists is crucial to Canada's future vitality.

Providing young people with an alternative

"It's an investment in our future. These kids end up with knowledge, skills and a real appreciation of what it is to be a Canadian. That is an incredible social investment," he states. The curriculum provides an alternative for youth who aren't sure about university and their future career paths. "[Katimavik] provides an opportunity to explore their potential and their interests. It will expose them to an array of job opportunities and career direction," he says. It could also save the country money. A 2002 economic impact study, conducted by Etude Economique Conseil (EEC Inc.), revealed that Katimavik participants' labour added a value of close to $13.2 million to the Canadian economy. Beyond the numbers, Bigeau also believes his program is important because Canada's future depends on a community that understands the cultural and political landscape.

"There's a lack of public engagement, and not only in the political process. It's lacking at the community level, the voluntary sector. More importantly, there isn't a targeted, focused strategy on engaging youth," he says. According to Bigeau, programs like Katimavik's can help combat this social lethargy among youth. "[By] the end of this program, participants appreciate the value of contributing to the community. [It] will carry over for the rest of their lives." For Bigeau it's an obvious argument in favour of instituting a policy to ensure the future well-being of the country and guarantee continued funding for Katimavik. However, the government has a different opinion.

Katimavik only one of many options

The Canadian Heritage Ministry currently funds Katimavik to the tune of $19.8 million a year, up from $9 million since 2003. Pascale Robichaud, acting manager of Youth Forums Canada at the ministry, believes Katimavik is only one of many options for youth. "We're looking at the way we can engage youth to be more participatory," she says. "Katimavik has great results, but sometimes kids would like to stay at home and make a difference in their community. So we're trying to respond to those different needs as much as we can." Janet Campbell, manager of policy and promotions at Exchanges Canada concurs.

"There are certainly a lot of different approaches to take," says Campbell. "We think that our whole range of programs contribute to nation-building by helping young Canadians figure out what it means to be part of Canada. [Katimavik] is just one of many models. The results they're getting appear to be positive. [But] we like the ability that we have right now to offer a range of opportunities for young people and not a 'one-size-fits-all'." Campbell also doesn't believe a national policy is on the horizon. "It would be up to government to make a decision to steer us in that direction," she states. "We have Katimavik as one of many approaches, and that's the way it is for the foreseeable future." This sort of talk frustrates proponents of a national youth service policy.

A government-endorsed youth service model

As an example of what Canada should aspire to, youth service proponents need only look southward to the work done by Americorps, a U.S. national youth service program that engages more than 50,000 volunteers yearly. Participants receive monetary stipends and bursaries to apply toward their education as a reward for service. The program is fully endorsed by the American government.

In 1993 the U.S. government created the National and Community Service Trust Act, allowing for the launch of Americorps. Coordinated by an independent federal agency (The Corporation for National and Community Service), Americorps legally exists as, "a network of national service programs that engage Americans in intensive service to meet the nation's critical needs in education, public safety, health, and the environment." Canada has nothing as comprehensive or enshrined. Justin Trudeau, chair of the board of directors of Katimavik, thinks the Canadian government is taking a shortsighted approach to the issue. "We're missing out on the ability to affect the culture in such a way that we will be able to create a country where service and engagement by all citizens is taken as natural, par for the course," he says.

"We're trapped in a kind of thinking that is very short term. It takes a long-term vision to invest in youth. Young people are not huge consumers yet, they're not a major part of the workforce. There's just not a real need to pander to them politically. It becomes essential to make sure that young people are getting the most out of their education, so that they can contribute maximally to the well-being of their country and their world down the road. Creating the policy around national youth service would be one very strong message that this is something that is a priority for Canada." And the international community is watching what Canada does about this as well.

Canada's place in the youth service movement

Donald J. Eberley is honorary president of the International Association for National Youth Service (IANYS). It's an organization consisting largely of member-countries with national youth policies already in place, countries like the USA, Ghana, Israel, and Argentina among others. Despite Canada's lack of policy, it is a valued member of the group. Eberley cites Katimavik as one of the major influences in IANYS. "There can be no doubt of Canada's and Katimavik's impact on IANYS. Colleagues have been very interested in Katimavik experiences, especially with regard to the deliberate mixing of teams from different provinces, language backgrounds, etc.," he says.

IANYS holds its world conference every two years. The next one is slated for Montreal in June 2006. At their 1992 world conference, Katimavik founder Senator Hebert asked the following question: "Are we going to continue reducing services in day care centres, centres for the handicapped and even hospitals, and at the same time refuse the voluntary contribution of tens of thousands of young people who would like nothing better than to be of use?" In 2006 Katimavik plans to vigorously pursue the government to ensure that the answer to that question will be a resounding "no".

Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He can be reached at aajzenkopf@yahoo.com.

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