04/02/2012 05:30 EDT | Updated 06/02/2012 05:12 EDT



It should come as no surprise that the Harper Conservatives used their first majority-government budget to kill the Katimavik program. Despite the fact that Katimavik is a well-respected program that more than pays for itself, the government cancelled its funding for ideological reasons. As a former participant (2003-04) and former staff member (2009-10) of Katimavik, I've experienced myself and witnessed in others the empowerment that this program fosters in participants, and in the communities that host them. At a cost of only $15 million a year, Katimavik is much too valuable to cancel.

Katimavik (which means "meeting place" in Inuktitut) is the country's oldest and largest youth engagement program, open to all Canadians aged 17-21. Participants spend six months volunteering in two regions of the country. Groups of 11 participants live together in one house (along with a staff member), where they share all household duties. Each participant volunteers full-time at a local non-profit organization. In their evenings and weekends, participants also engage in daily programing on themes that include healthy living, environmentalism, cultural discovery, practicing both official languages, and engaging as a citizen. Staff members facilitate most of these activities early on, but participants take on an active role in preparing and running their own activities as they progress through the program.

Katimavik is recognized as a leader in the field of youth empowerment and service learning, both across Canada and internationally. In 2007, the United Nations Economic and Social Council granted Katimavik special consultative status, acknowledging the program's expertise in national youth service. The Canadian Heritage Department (who funds the program) wrote in 2009, "Katimavik has built an impressive track record of engaging young Canadians in volunteer activities with community partners across the country." And an evaluation of Katimavik by Canadian Heritage last year showed that the program was successfully meeting all of the department's objectives. "The conclusions of this assessment were that our programs were aligned with government priorities, that the program was really performing well on all the metrics," Katimavik CEO Daniel Lapointe told CBC News on March 31st 2012.

So, if Katimavik is meeting or exceeding all expectations, why cancel the program?

The Budget states that Katimavik is being cut because it serves, "a very small number of participants at an excessive per-person cost" (pg. 218). This statement ignores many important facts:

• Katimavik is the only national service program in Canada that runs a six-month long program, and that the length of the program is a significant source of it's success (as well as it's high cost);

• The minority Conservative government cut Katimavik's annual operating budget by 25 per cent in 2010 and that the program adapted to absorb these costs;

• Canadian Heritage directed Katimvaik to establish more programs in remote Northern communities, which are significantly more expensive to run;

• The economic value of Katimavik's programing, and the efforts of its volunteer participants.

A 2006 report called the "Social and Economic Impact Study of the Katimavik Program" demonstrated that Katimavik actually generates excess value in the communities where it operates. This study, which was performed by a professional consulting firm, measured the value of participants' volunteer efforts and the secondary benefits that community partners recognize from association with Katimavik (such as an increase in donations, etc). The report found that for every $1 Katimavik spends, host communities receive a value of $2.20 (pg. 40). Most of this value is invested in rural and remote communities, where Katimavik runs many of its programs.

MP Justin Trudeau has asserted that the program was cut because it was founded when his father was Prime Minister, and the Conservatives feel that it continues to be associated with the Liberal Party. While I agree that the government's decision was made for ideological reasons, I believe that the reasons run deeper than an extension of the Conservative-Liberal rivalry.

The government cut the funding because Katimavik's mandate is to engage youth and foster community, and Harper's Conservatives don't support these goals. We've seen the Conservatives regularly attack community-building institutions over the past few years, such as when they cut $45 million in arts funding in 2008, and when they made a massive cut to the CBC's funding last week. And Harper was certainly not aiming to empower youth when he had students thrown out of a Conservative rally in London, Ontario in 2011 simply for being engaged and attending events held by other political parties.

Considering the social and economic value Katimavik generates, its advocates can put forward a very strong argument in favour of keeping the program running. Katimavik's annual budget represents only 0.29 per cent of the $5.2 billion in cuts announced last week. It would be very easy for the government to reverse its decision and save the program. If Katimavik's 30,000 alumni and many thousands of community partners send a strong message to Ottawa over the upcoming few weeks, perhaps the Conservatives will be convinced to reinstate the program's funding.