Reviving an idea that has intrigued Liberals for decades — but which has proven difficult to establish — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the "design phase" of the "Canada Service Corps" on Tuesday morning.

It is a step toward fulfilling a campaign commitment to create a new national program to enlist young people in community service.

In the initial stage, the federal government will partner with national, regional or local organizations — including 4-H Canada, Apathy is Boring and the Boys and Girls Club of Canada — as well as provide small grants, ranging from $250 to $1,500, to young people who propose worthy ideas and projects. An online tool is being launched to match young people with volunteer opportunities.

The government had previously allocated $105 million over five years to the initiative. It projects that the funding streams announced on Tuesday will create service opportunities for up to 12,350 young people.

Labour Minister Patty Hajdu, who has been charged with developing the program, said in an interview that the initiative will provide opportunities for community engagement and personal skills development. But she said the government also hopes to "instil a culture of service" among young people, recalling how, as the director of a homeless shelter in Thunder Bay, Ont., there was often a concern about the lack of young people involved.

"Young people may not have considered volunteering there if there weren't older people bringing them along," she said.

A full launch of the Canada Service Corps, which is aimed at Canadians between the ages of 15 and 30, is expected in 2019. It remains to be seen whether the initiative will coalesce into a single national program or remain as multiple funding initiatives.

According to posted criteria, activities "involving partisan political activity" or "that do not respect existing individual human rights in Canada … [including] reproductive rights" will not be eligible for funding.

Similar criteria for organizations applying for summer-job grants have been a source of recent controversy

The old idea of youth service

The notion of such a program in Canada dates to at least Lester B. Pearson's creation of the Company for Young Canadians in 1966, reputedly inspired by President John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps.

"The idea was to see what could be done to give the younger people of the country, who were restless and exasperated and unsettled, an opportunity to get rid of their frustrations by service," Pearson wrote in his autobiography.

War, he argued, had given previous generations a cause, but "the new generation had not found the moral equivalent for war service and I wondered whether there was something we could do in this country to provide them with a challenge in terms of service to the state or the international community."

But the idea bogged down in organizational dysfunction and political problems — two of its most prominent members were spotted taking part in an anti-Vietnam protest outside the American consulate in Toronto.


A group of young people demonstrate against government cuts to Katimavik a national youth volunteer training program in 2012. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

In 1977, the Company of Young Canadians was abandoned, but Pierre Trudeau's government created a new organization, Katimavik.

Katimavik's federal funding was eliminated in 1986 by Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government — inspiring Liberal senator Jacques Hebert to launch a 21-day hunger strike in protest. Private funding was found in 1986 to keep it going and then federal funding began again in 1993 under Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, before it was cut again in 2012 by Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

James Moore, as Harper's heritage minister, claimed Katimavik made poor use of money and said eliminating the $14 million in annual funding was "one of the easiest decisions" he had made as minister.

Katimavik is one of the ten national organizations that the Liberals will now partner with, receiving $3 million for a program to engage Indigenous and underrepresented Canadian youth in service.

Trudeau's chance to follow through

Among the voices criticizing Moore's decision at the time was Justin Trudeau, who had been chair of Katimavik between 2002 and 2006.

As a rookie MP in 2009, Trudeau proposed that a House of Commons committee study the creation of a new national youth program. That motion was defeated, but Trudeau now has an opportunity to follow through.

Youth Corp

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau launched the Youth Corp initiative on the Leaders Today instagram account. (Instagram)

That he has such an opportunity is arguably a result of the young people who turned out to vote in 2015. And Trudeau has sought to wrap himself in the cause of youth: naming himself minister of youth and appointing a youth council to advise him. But the nation's youth have not been uniformly impressed (and Jagmeet Singh, the NDP's young and emoji-fluent leader, seems likely to try to challenge Trudeau for the support of those aged 18 to 30).

Ilona Dougherty, founder of Apathy is Boring and now managing director of the Youth & Innovation Research Project at the University of Waterloo, said an ideal program would not only harness young people's enthusiasm or their willingness to do manual labour, but also their ability for new and innovative thinking.

"Fifteen- to 25-year-olds' brains are wired for innovation and wired to be these bold, disruptive thinkers who can really move issues and ideas forward in society," she said. 

But in her view, above all, an ideal program would be ambitious.

She points to the Service Year Alliance in the United States, which aims to make a "service year" — a paid year devoted to working on a community service project — common among young Americans.

"We've never actually really tried this in a way that's big enough scale to have the kind of impact that everybody hopes to have," she said.

"I think Canada could be really bold and could take this really seriously and could put some serious money behind this and really have the goal be every young Canadian [has an opportunity]."