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Federal Volunteer Program Katimavik to End After Funding Cut

On March 29, as part of the new federal budget, the Harper government announced cuts to a number of different programs. One of those cut—losing all $15 million of its annual funding—was the Katimavik program.

Katimavik, the youth volunteer network started in 1977, sends 17- to 21-year-old applicants to live with a group of their peers in one of 53 Canadian communities for a number of months, where they work full-time volunteer hours, as well as improving their bilingual abilities, and working to develop leadership skills and healthy lifestyles.

Since its inception, the program has had over 30,000 participants. And while the Conservatives have pledged to support more efficient youth programming, the loss of Katimavik will put pressure on over 500 not-for-profit organizations, in need of the full-time volunteer work that Katimavik participants used to provide, to do more with less.

With the cancellation of the rotation of 600 youth who expected to begin work earlier this month, the loss is felt especially hard in Canada’s smaller communities, where Katimavik makes up for the small pool of local volunteers.

“The people that are going to lose out are our most vulnerable population,” said Ruth Smith, executive director at the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Swift Current branch, a small city in southern Saskatchewan. The CMHA is a volunteer organization that provides support and advocacy to those suffering from mental illness.

“Many of us in non-profits work with a skeleton staff and next to no funding, having to raise funds for most of what we do.”

Like many of Katimavik’s partner organizations, the CMHA in Swift Current’s staff are kept busy just with day-to-day operations. For the average of 48 people they’re host to, the association has only three staff members.

“We’re always doing fundraisers, so when we have the Katimavik volunteers here, we can do the stuff to keep the doors open,” said Smith.

In Lethbridge, AB, Katimavik’s partnered with the food bank, where programming is now in question, knowing they won’t be receiving their usual two full-time volunteers.

“It directly affects our fundraising,” said Tonya Woolford, executive director at the Lethbridge Food Bank. “We’re partnering up with other organizations and partner hosts to try and lobby the government, because activities will potentially have to be cut since we don’t have the people here to help us.”

Among the services in danger of being cut is their “Good Food Box,” an initiative that offers bread and fresh produce from local farmers to low-income community members at a discounted price.

“My life has changed just from meeting these youth,” said Woolford, who works with six other full-time staff at the food bank. “We have two [Katimavik] volunteers and they do 35 hours a week—that’s huge.”

Upon the announcement of Katimavik’s funding being cut, the Liberal Party started an online petition, which stated that every dollar invested in Katimavik returns roughly $2.20 in development for the communities it serves.

“The people that are going to lose out are our most vulnerable population.”

- Ruth Smith, Executive Director, Canadian Mental Health Association’s Swift Current branch

Its value to the communities it serves aside, one of the primary points of contention regarding Katimavik’s funding being cut is how much it costs the government.

While Katimavik maintains that their per-volunteer cost is an average of $12,000, depending on travel distance to their work post, Heritage Minister James Moore stated in the House of Commons that the program is inefficient, with a $28,000-per-volunteer cost. Minister Moore could not be reached for comment by press time.

“Increasing Isolation”

The more isolated a community is, the more hurt they’ll be by the lack of Katimavik volunteers.

The funding announced for youth programming by the Conservatives has been aimed toward Canada’s larger cities, most notably Toronto, but none will provide support for Canadian not-for-profits.

In Sioux Lookout, a town of 5,000 in northwestern Ontario, Katimavik volunteers impact life in a number of ways—from working on school curricula to assisting the one staff member in the small town’s Chamber of Commerce.

“A huge part of Katimavik is about the growth of the young people, but these groups have made major contributions to this community,” said Susan Barclay, executive director of the Out of the Cold Shelter, a homeless shelter, transitional housing centre and food bank in Sioux Lookout.

“In the ‘80s, they were here for a number of months and they built the town-owned recreation complex,” she said.

Sioux Lookout’s volunteer base work jobs during regular hours, so having Katimavik workers means they can get work done during the day. At the Out of the Cold shelter, that means cooking, cleaning and serving meals. Volunteers do sometimes take up special projects, however, depending on their talents.

“We had one Katimavik volunteer who painted the women’s sleeping area with a mural while she was here and it’s just gorgeous, it makes the room so beautiful,” said Barclay.

In Canada’s smallest towns, Katimavik volunteers offer a sense of the rest of Canada that the people living there might not otherwise get to see. The groups of 10 that volunteer in over 90 communities are selected to include a diversity of youth from across the country, both anglophone and francophone.

“They broaden the horizons of the people that come into the CMHA—they can see how people outside of our little area live,” said Smith. “Most people here live on social services, and most do not travel.”

The volunteers in Swift Current do work like cleaning and running a bingo where clients can win toothpaste, soap, laundry detergent and other essential items, but those from Quebec hold a language class too—something the members of the community would not normally have access to.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for our clients to interact with people from across Canada,” said Doug Kinar, executive director of the Prince Albert branch of the CMHA in Saskatchewan. “When you stop that process, the isolation of our community from the rest of Canada is increased.”

It’s a sentiment that was echoed by others affected by the cuts to Katimavik.

“They bring a little of the rest of Canada to us and they see what Quebec is about,” said Fawn Patch, manager of Reilly House, a community centre and second-hand store in the town of Potton, QC. The age of her regular volunteers ranges from 70 to 88 years old.

With many volunteer posts involved in working directly with other youth, the Katimavik group serve as a role models, too.

“The youth would look up to those volunteers. Two of my youth went to Katimavik last year,” said Kathleen Bray, the volunteer and events coordinator at the Kelowna Friendship Centre in Kelowna, BC. The Kelowna Friendship Centre received Katimavik volunteers from 2008 to 2011.

“The urban aboriginal community needs that kind of mentorship for our youth. We need that, and we’re missing it a lot.”

That absence will now be felt across the country, both at the not-for-profits and in the communities they serve.

“There’s nothing else. It’s true that youth can go to college or university and have an experience, but this is affecting communities because programs will be cut,” said Woolford. “A direct hit on the community will be felt.”

To find out more on action to reinstate Katimavik’s funding, visit A rally for Katimavik’s future will take place July 21 in Parc Émilie-Gamelin.