Katimavik's return urged in petition signed by 10,000 Canadians

Thousands of Canadians want Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to revive a program created by his father in 1977: the national youth volunteer initiative Katimavik.

PM Justin Trudeau, who had ties to Katimavik, made election pledge to create youth service program

Sami Lester, left, and Alexandra Pesant-Tremblay model hats Lester made after learning how to knit during her stint in the Katimavik program. Lester started a petition urging Justin Trudeau's government to restore funding for the national youth service program. (Sami Lester)

Thousands of Canadians want Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to revive Katimavik, a program created by his father in 1977.

The funding for the youth volunteer initiative was cut by the former Conservative government in 2012.

Sami Lester, from Picton, Ont., launched an online petition last year that now has more than 10,000 signatures.

"I made this petition at midnight, and I didn't think anybody would sign it," Lester told CBC News.

In 2009, she dropped out of her second year at university, looking for a different kind of experience. She applied to Katimavik and was accepted.

She lived in Rockland, Ont., for a few months to improve her French.

Lester then moved to Vancouver, where she did volunteer work and learned other skills, such as how to knit and cook.

She said the national volunteer training program gave her invaluable life experience.

"I have over 250 pages of comments alone of how much an impact Katimavik has had on people's lives," she said.

Lester's petition calls on the federal government to bring back Katimavik by September 2016.

Pledge for 'restored youth service program'

The Liberal election platform did not mention Katimavik by name, but the party did promise to invest $25 million a year into a restored youth service program.

Justin Trudeau, centre, poses with former PM Jean Chrétien, left, and Jacques Hébert, founder of Katimavik, at the organization's 25th anniversary party in 2002. Chrétien restored some of the funding cut by the PCs in the 1980s, after Hébert went on a hunger strike to save the program. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The prime minister has also spoken about the benefits of the program for young people.

In 2005, he was the chair of its board, a volunteer position that allowed him to lobby former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien to commit to stable funding for the organization.

The program was created in 1977, when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister. Its funding subsequently was cut by former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, then partially restored in the Chrétien era, only to be cut again in 2012 by the Conservative government led by Stephen Harper.

Katimavik now runs two programs with the help of provincial organizations in Alberta and Quebec.

'We will work to make that happen'

When asked about the  petition, an official in the Prime Minister's Office responded with the following statement:

Elliot Holden, centre, a Katimavik participant, checks out some compost during a training workshop in Vancouver. (Sami Lester)

"We are committed to follow through our commitment to invest $25 million per year in a restored youth service program, to give young Canadians valuable work and life experience and provide communities with the help required for much-needed projects. Details will be provided in due time."

Lester said whatever the government calls its restructured youth program, she hopes it continues to allow participants to live in different communities across the country.

"I think another key aspect is that it's government funded and there's as few barriers as possible, so that as many people as possible can participate and have that opportunity," Lester said.

The previous youth service program was overseen by the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly's office issued a statement yesterday saying, "Our government has taken the commitment to invest $25 million per year in a youth service program, to give young Canadians valuable work and life experience, and provide communities with the help required for much-needed projects," adding, "We will work, in the year 2016, to make that happen."

A group of Katimavik participants share Thanksgiving dinner in 2009. The program arranged for young people to live and volunteer in other parts of Canada. (Sami Lester)

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