03/21/2016 05:03 EDT | Updated 03/23/2016 02:59 EDT

Katimavik Organizers, Alumni Hope Trudeau Delivers In Federal Budget

"He really gets why it works."

OTTAWA — Four years after the Conservatives killed Katimavik's federal funding, those who still run the volunteer youth service program are hoping Tuesday's Liberal budget will give new life to their organization.

Willy Fournier, Katimavik's current chair, has kept the program on life support ever since the Tories cut all the group's federal funding in the 2012 budget.

UPDATE: The Liberals' 2016 budget Tuesday announced $105 million over five years in funding to help "young Canadians gain valuable work and life experience while providing support for communities across Canada." The Liberal government also committed to spending $25 million per year after that to support youth service. Further details on what groups will get funding, will be announced in the coming months, the budget stated.

Justin Trudeau, then chairman of the Katimavik board of directors, speaks to students at Jarvis Collegiate on Feb. 25, 2003. (Photo: Tibor Kolley via CP)

Although most young people were shut out of its programming over the past two years, Katimavik has — through partnerships with indigenous groups and provincial governments — been able with varying degrees of success to adapt its model of volunteer community service to continue to help aboriginal and Métis youth and for young people coming out of foster care.

"When you consider that we have no money, we are still kicking," Fournier told The Huffington Post Canada.

After the Liberals' election victory on Oct. 19, however, and Trudeau's election promise to invest $25 million for 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," Fournier is pretty confident the national program is about to return.

As a former chair, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knows Katimavik "inside out," Fournier said. "He really does. He really gets why it works.

"In the platform, it pretty much describes the types of benefits that have been the hallmark of Katimavik."

Program launched by government of Trudeau's father

Trudeau served as chair of Katimavik between 2002 and 2006. His father's government first launched the program back in 1977.

In recent weeks, Trudeau has twice alluded to Katimavik in speeches: first during a dinner with a UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and later in Vancouver at Globe 2016, a business conference on sustainability and innovation.

In his 2014 autobiography, "Common Ground," Trudeau wrote that the program "had an enormous impact on this country, one that shouldn't be understated.

"Fundamentally, Katimavik was about young Canadians building a better country, one community at a time."

His greatest frustration with the program, Trudeau wrote, was that every year, 10 times as many young people applied for the program as it had funding for.

"Ten thousand young Canadians, often unsure about their next step after high school, would offer to serve their country with their energy and efforts, and we would turn away nine out of ten," Trudeau wrote. "That a country as successful as Canada would not choose to offer young people more opportunities to become active, community-minded citizens while helping local organizations was something I wanted to fix. And still do."

Trudeau's first legislative effort after he entered Parliament in 2008, was a motion to forge a committee to consider introducing a national voluntary service policy for young people in Canada.

In introducing his motion, Trudeau again referred to Katimavik and lamented the fact only a thousand young people a year had the opportunity to join because "the funding simply is not there."

Former prime minister Jean Chretien, Trudeau, and former senator Jacques Hebert talk at a reception in Gatineau, Quebec on Nov. 2, 2002. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/CP)

During his time as chair, Trudeau wrote, he successfully encouraged Jean Chrétien's Liberal government to "increase and stabilize funding [up] to $20 million a year."

When the Tories cut Katimavik in 2012, its funding had been decreased to a three-year $45 million funding grant. It wasn't the first time a Conservative government had slashed its funding.

In 1986, Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's government also eliminated Katimavik's grants. At the time, Jacques Hébert, Pierre Elliott Trudeau's close friend and the man often credited with creating the program, undertook a 21-day hunger strike to revive it. Hébert's strike did not succeed, and funding wasn't restored until the Liberal's budget in 1995.

When Stephen Harper's government decided to pull the plug, Trudeau, then still a backbench Liberal MP told HuffPost the Tories had made a political decision "100 per cent" based on the fact the program had Liberal roots.

He tweeted: "Katimavik empowers young Canadians. So CPC hates it."

That April, when Trudeau took part in the now infamous celebrity boxing match with then Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau, the Liberal MP sported a temporary Katimavik tattoo on his right bicep. He told reporters at the time he was thinking about the youth volunteer program in the ring, that it was one of the things he believes in and wanted to fight for.

Fournier wrote to Trudeau twice after the election and received more or less a pro forma response from the Prime Minister's Office. Eventually, he was invited to meet twice with Peter Schiefke, Trudeau's parliamentary secretary for youth.

Schiefke, a new 36-year-old MP, declined numerous interview requests from The Huffington Post. His office said he was too busy.

Fournier said Schiefke is evaluating and recommending what type of organizations the federal government should partner with to meet its commitment to young people.

"As far as we know, we are getting no special treatment," Fournier said. "I think [Trudeau] is deliberately making sure this is done on an arm's length basis, and I imagine the decision will be made after the budget."

Fournier said he "doubts" Katimavik will receive funds in Tuesday's budget, because "Schiefke made it very clear to us that if there is any funding for these organizations, it is a matter of months, not weeks."

But Fournier is confident the money will come.

"I don't think there is any other group that is as well positioned," he said. "We just happen to think that because of our track record and also all the things that we have done in the meantime, if they are going to go to one organization on a national level, we think that that is us. We don't see from history or anything else [that] anybody that has been anywhere near us."

Peter Schiefke, parliamentary secretary to the prime minister (Youth), speaks at the Dovercourt Boys and Girls Club in Toronto on Friday, February 12, 2016. (Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim/CP)

Some of the things that Katimavik has done since its funding was cut have been to include indigenous-specific programing as well as a reconciliation component in its pitch for a renewed national program.

In 2014, through a partnership with Edmonton's Rupertsland Institute, five Métis youth took part in a Katimavik program in Peterborough, Ont., that was adapted to include volunteerism four-days a week as well as school credits for Trent University's indigenous studies program and Fleming College. This August, Katimavik is planning to send a group of James Bay Cree youth through the program.

Fournier pointed to the Cindy Blackstock case — a recent decision by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that found that the federal government discriminated against First Nations children by providing less funds for welfare services on reserves than exist elsewhere in Canada — and said he hoped it might lead Ottawa to fund a permanent Katimavik program for indigenous youth.

'It gave me a different sense of who I was'

Erin Ellefson, 32, who took part in the program funded through the Rupertstland Institute, said it allowed her to learn a lot more about her indigenous background.

"Before I took the program, I didn't know much about my heritage," she said. "I was Métis. I knew I had the aboriginal background, but I didn't know much about the native culture."

Ellefson, who was the oldest in the program, described it as a difficult but enlightening. "It gave me a different sense of who I was and who I wanted to become."

She credits the experience with her decision to return to school to get a degree in social work. "Katimavik gave me a sense of purpose and a belief in myself…. It made me re-examine what my life was and what I wanted it to be."

When she returned home to Edmonton, Ellefson also said, she took it upon herself to learn more about reconciliation.

Fournier told HuffPost that Katimavik is developing a curriculum involving "active reconciliation" for its national core program that will be implemented in the homes where its youth live. Several Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations dealt with educating youth on aboriginal peoples' contributions in Canada, as well as on the history and legacy of residential schools.

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The commission also specifically called upon the federal government to "establish multiyear funding for community-based youth organizations to deliver programs on reconciliation, and [to] establish a national network to share information and best practices."

Fournier said Katimavik is not jumping on the bandwagon of reconciliation but, rather, determined several years ago that the organization could play a special role in this area and consulted Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, about their project.

"We want youth participants coming out of Katimavik to be knowledgeable about what those [injustices] are," Fournier said. "We think it is something that will be a significant benefit to Canada."

'We've been gutted, thanks to the other guys'

Fournier won't say how much money Katimavik requested from Ottawa. He said he hopes to double the participation of the national core program and continue its specialty program for indigenous youth and those coming out of government care. With $14-15 million, Fournier said, Katimavik was able to send 1,100 youth every year through the program.

"For the same amount of money now...we expect to put through more like 1,800 to 1,900, maybe 2,000," Fournier said. Another 500 young people could be included through specialty programs, he added.

But getting there will take some time, Fournier said.

A group of young people are shown demonstrating on Parliament Hill against government cuts to Katimavik on April 23, 2012. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/CP)

"If they gave us $15 million right now, we just can't flip a switch. We've been gutted, thanks to the other guys, so we have to put back in place some of our core competency."

Assuming it receives new funding, Katimavik will need six months to find willing communities and partners and is targeting a possible start date of January 2017.

It will also take four or five years to get up to a "cruising speed" of $14 or $15 million, Fournier said.

Group did not request full $25M

Although Katimavik presented Ottawa with a five-year plan, Fournier said Katimavik did not put in a request for the full $25 million annually.

"We expect that there will be other partners also qualified to contribute to youth development in various ways, we just happen to think we have the best track record and the most comprehensive offer," he said.

"If there was a way to process more youth, say to 10,000, and [to do so] in a good way that we could be successful and ensure the same quality outcomes … we would look at that, but so far, from the experience of Katimavik, we don't see that formula at this time."

When the Tories cut Katimavik's funding, the government's reasoning was that the program was just too expensive for the number of youth rotating through each year.

The Tories said they would fund programs such as Encounters with Canada, Forum for Young Canadians and groups such as the YMCA — "programs that benefit large numbers of young people at a reasonable cost rather than concentrating available funding on a very small number of participants at an excessive per-person cost."

Heritage Canada, the department that funded Katimavik, noted in its 2010 evaluation that the program required a "fairly large annual contribution" from the government but that, based on consultations, "generally, the public views this contribution as a reasonable investment."

"That a country as successful as Canada would not choose to offer young people more opportunities to become active, community-minded citizens while helping local organizations was something I wanted to fix. And still do."

— Justin Trudeau in "Common Ground"

The department's evaluation noted how Katimavik contributed to Heritage Canada's strategic objectives through second-language learning, appreciation of Canada's geographic and cultural diversity, and fostering of a sense of attachment to the country. It said the program attracted a very large number of applicants, particularly from remote rural areas, low-income families and to a lesser extent aboriginal communities, although fewer young men, disabled youth or youth from visible minorities were being recruited.

Fournier is aware of the criticism related to Katimavik's cost and participation rates. He plans to increase the number of participants and cut costs by asking the communities the youth serve — through volunteer activities at not-for-profit organizations such as hardware stores run by Habitat for Humanity, a local museum, a shelter for women — to help subsidize housing and travel costs for the group.

"That, if we are successful, could constitute 10 per cent more," Fournier said of the cost-savings.

Katimavik also plans to have fewer youth living in communal houses, seven, for example, rather than a dozen, while also involving a handful of youth living in the community in its programming, as a way of decreasing costs and increasing participation.

Katimavik's pitch checks several boxes that the new Liberal government wants to fulfill, Fournier said, "especially in areas of community volunteer service, citizenship and civic duty, appreciation of diversity, employability.

"And we are adding on to that our active commitment to reconciliation which we think we can fulfil [and] make a major and unique contribution based on our contribution."

More than 11,000 people signed a petition in the past few months urging the Liberal government to reinstate Katimavik and make it available to youth aged 18 to 25.

Several of Katimavik's 30,000 alumni have also been actively championing the programs benefits on social media and in traditional media.

Alumni speaking out

Sarah Harold, 28, is encouraging friends, family and other participants to write letters to their elected representatives and share how the Katimavik experience "positively affected our lives."

She took part in the program in 2010, living and volunteering in Crowsnest Pass, Alta.; Rockland, Ont.; and southern Vancouver, later becoming a Katimavik staff member. Harold said the program altered her path in life. While in Alberta, she volunteered with the emergency medical service and she is now working as an emergency medical responder.

Katimavik also turned her into a "lifelong volunteer," she said.

Harold said she believes Trudeau knows the benefits of Katimavik, so she's hopeful that will help the group see its funding returned.

"The value that he places on the youth in our society in Canada and how important it is to foster their growth and development in a healthy way, he obviously realizes that Katimavik does that," she said.

Alex Brownlee, 23, who took part in the Katimavik program in 2011, is also optimistic that the program will return. During his six months with Katimavik he lived and volunteered in Smith Falls, Ont.; Burnaby, B.C.; and Lethbridge, Alta.

"It's a program unlike anything else that is out there. I don't know a single person that has done the program that wouldn't fight for it to be reinstated and for other people to experience what they have experienced."

The program changed his life, he said. "I was trying to escape a past life and restart."

He described a "troublesome high school period" where he smoked a lot of pot, was accused by a friend of stealing, and ended up a social outcast, bullied and beaten at school. "I found myself alone, not really knowing who I wanted to be or who I was going to be."

Through Katimavik, he said, he found a new batch of friends, picked up music, and got a fresh start.

"I went into the program pretty beaten down. I didn't really talk much the first month, but then throughout the time there I really opened up and I'm sure my story is quite similar to many of those in there. … It seems kinda surreal, thinking back on it, how much it gave me confidence."

Brownlee said he thinks it's "extremely important" for Katimavik to get its funding renewed.

"It's a program unlike anything else that is out there. I don't know a single person that has done the program that wouldn't fight for it to be reinstated and for other people to experience what they have experienced."