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Governor General David Johnston, seen here at Rideau Hall on April 5 prior to leaving for last weekend's Vimy Ridge commemorations, told The Canadian Press he's working on plans for a new academic and work exchange program for Canadian youth. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

As he strode the battlefields of France where so many young countrymen gave their lives far from home in the First World War, Canada's Governor General said he'd like to give today's youth opportunity to experience cultures beyond our borders.

"I would love to see a situation where a condition of university or college education would be to spend a term or a year abroad not simply as a visitor but on an academic exchange or a work exchange," David Johnston told The Canadian Press as he attended ceremonies commemorating the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Johnston said he was working on a plan that would see as many Canadian youth as possible receive financial assistance to learn first-hand about other societies.

"I'd also do that within Canada as a way for our young people to better understand their own country — especially functioning in a language other than one's first language."

Johnston's focus on youth came as thousands of students hoisting Canadian flags and banners paid silent tribute in France this week to the nearly 3,600 soldiers killed at Vimy Ridge. Canadians captured the strategic site after four days of fierce fighting.

Johnston heading to Brazil

Learning has been a key focus for Johnston ever since he took office. The former University of Waterloo president said a good education feeds into a successful cycle of innovation and trade which form the basis of a successful society.

"You get all three of those parts together and they reinforce one another," he said.

One step in moving closer to Johnston's plan for youth will take place later this month, when he heads to an international education conference in Brazil to lead a delegation including 34 Canadian presidents.

"I'm attempting to encourage much more international exchange in education," he said.

Johnston goes on to relate a personal example when outlining a vision of how his plan for youth might work.

"In my old job when I stepped down, I requested that there be no banquets, no fundraising," he said." Well, lo and behold they organized a banquet where they raised five million bucks for a fund to support the travel costs of Waterloo students on academic exchange and another part was to bring refugee students to the University of Waterloo. I'd like to see that replicated across the country."

The March 29 federal budget cancelled funding for Katimavik, a volunteer program that sent about 1,100 young Canadians to different parts of the country to work as volunteers, learning new languages, gaining employment skills and experiencing new cultures in the process.

Heritage Minister James Moore was in Toronto Tuesday highlighting the government's $26 million investment in eight new projects through three other programs for youth still funded by his department: Exchanges Canada, Youth Take Charge, and the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund. The goals of those programs include helping young Canadians learn more about other parts of the country and benefit from new cultural experiences.

'Fervent desire for peace'

As the Vimy anniversary sharpened his plans for Canadian youth, the Governor General said the one thing he hoped the anniversary would foster in people was a fervent desire for peace.

"It was wonderful to see our young people linking with our senior members of society," he said of the youth involvement in commemoration activities.

"This type of interaction provides a transmission not simply of history but civilization and culture. It allows our youth to learn how to navigate in the world in a more successful and we hope a more peaceful way."

Johnston and his wife Sharon wrap their three-day visit to France and Belgium on Tuesday after visiting a cemetery where 200 Canadians are buried and meeting with staff at the headquarters of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The commission maintains the gravesites and memorials to Canadians who died in military campaigns on foreign soil and weren't returned to Canada. 

With files from CBC News