Last week Canada’s Federal Government, in its first majority budget, announced that it would cease funding Katimavik. I’m sad for all the future young people who will not be able to participate in this great, 35-year-old program—an invaluable volunteer-leadership initiative that enables Canadians between the ages of 18 and 21 to get hands-on work experience while traveling the country.
I did Katimavik between the winter and summer of 2004. Over seven months, I lived in Tweed, Ontario, St. Stephens, New Brunsick and Lorette, Manitoba. I volunteered at an elderly care facility, a charity second hand store, in a primary school and for a municipality. I learned, among other things, how to bake bread, tend a lawn, grow vegetables and organize a charity fashion show. I even published my first piece of paid writing. It was a short article for a Winnipeg magazine called Swerve (now OutWords), and was about coming out of the closet and marching in my first Pride parade, two of my biggest Katimavik firsts (next to my first piercing—my tongue!). My Katima-group, which consisted of 11 young people from across Canada, had three gay guys and two bisexuals. I couldn’t have come out in any better, more supportive circumstances. I (almost) had my first real sexual encounter too (if drunkenly molesting a housemate counts—sorry Cody).
But, perhaps most importantly, I learned about Canada. About the geography, people and languages of my country. I grew up in a giant suburb outside of Toronto called Mississauga. I had a very narrow world view, formed mainly by my peers of upper-middle-class WASPs and my proximity to a very inward-looking metropolis. I thought that everyone went to university, wore designer clothes, had a passport, traveled and ate out in restaurants all the time (eating things like sushi and pad thai and dim sum). I thought everyone aspired to owning a car and a big house and to have a suit-and-tie profession, and that if you didn’t there was something wrong with you. The people that I met on the program—that I lived with and volunteered with—greatly opened my perspective.
For instance, three of my housemates were Francophones (one from Montreal, one from outside of Sherbrooke and one from Lévis). I had, until then, spent many summers in the Laurentians with my family (on a very WASPy lake called Manitou), but had never really meaningfully engaged with a French-speaking Quebecer my age. To me, Quebec really existed of little more than Tremblant, West Mount and the highway to Ontario, and I didn’t pay attention to the frustration of Franco-Quebecers to maintain their language and culture. Of course, issues of French nationalism came up in the Katimavik house often, like when the three Francophones refused to acknowledge Canada Day or stand for (let alone sing) the Canadian national anthem. This was particularly galling after we had all made a big deal of celebrating St. Jean Baptiste Day (which, to be honest, I had probably never even heard of). But ultimately, I could empathize with some of their pains. At the beginning of the program, two of the French speakers spoke almost no English, but by the end were able to easily communicate. In contrast, none of the English speakers, including myself, really made any strides to speak very much French. There just wasn’t any need to, when the house was mostly Anglophones.
I also had one my happiest nights, ever, on Katimavik. I spent a hot, sunny day, with my Katima-group, working for the Winnipeg Folk Festival. My job was to stock up the Port-a-Loos with rolls of toilette paper. For our collective efforts, we were given tickets to stay and watch the performances. The headliner was the Buena Vista Social Club featuring Ibrahim Ferrer. I was wearing an orange shirt that my mom bought me and faded green jeans, rolled up at the ankles, that I found at Value Village (basically, I looked like the orange and green Katimavik logo). I don’t remember where I left my shoes, but I ended up dancing wildly in the mud, barefoot, fueled by a mickey of Bacardi that I smuggled into the festival grounds. I remember joining impromptu conga lines and bopping around in circles holding stranger’s hands. The music was spectacular and vital. I have never felt so free and unencumbered. Or so young, and I owe it to Katimavik.