Youth called to serve
Justin Trudeau's proposal has fans across the spectrum

National Post | April 11, 2009
By James Cowan

Justin Trudeau gave a speech in Toronto this week at 8 o'clock in the morning, in a basement conference room of a downtown hotel, in front of 45 businesspeople strewn between a dozen half-empty tables. Neither the dim setting nor early hour were uplifting, but the rookie politician, with his gift of earnestness, did his best to inspire the crowd.

"If any young person wants to serve their country -- typically between high school and university for a year -- they should be given the opportunity to do so," Mr. Trudeau said, promoting his plan to create a nationwide battalion of teenage volunteers.

He envisioned a renewed national commitment to volunteer service, "where we have young people discovering their capacity to make changes in the world, while we have communities receiving this influx of powerful, energetic, committed volunteers wanting to make a difference."

Among the legacies of Mr. Trudeau's famous father, Pierre, is Katimavik, a federally funded youth service organization that was founded on his watch. It died, temporarily, amid the cost-cutting of the 1980s recession, but in this latest economic downturn, something of its spirit is being reborn.

Justin Trudeau last month tabled a private member's motion in Parliament that would lay the foundation for a national volunteer service policy for young people. The proposal has garnered some praise from Conservatives and the NDP alongside Mr. Trudeau's own Liberal party, suggesting it is more than an airy-fairy notion put forward by the idealistic son of a former prime minister.

Barack Obama, the U. S. President, has also launched a crusade to reignite his own country's commitment to national service.

And citizens are heeding the call. This is not just a bunch of politicians offering variations on John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you ..." axiom. A survey recently released by Katimavik found 89% of respondents now felt Canadians have a responsibility to contribute to the betterment of their communities and the country. More than 8,500 public service events took place across the United States on Martin Luther King Day this year, up from 5,000 in 2008. And applications to AmeriCorps, a U. S. national volunteer service that functions as a domestic Peace Corps, tripled over the past year.

Organizers within the volunteer sector cite a confluence of political and economic factors for the interest in their work, starting with Mr. Obama's advocacy. Days before his inauguration, Mr. Obama called upon Americans to make "a renewed commitment to serving their community and their country." The effect was dramatic, according to Siobhan Dugan, a press officer with the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that oversees the AmeriCorps. "When he talked about service, there was a huge jump in AmeriCorps applications, right away," she said.

Mr. Obama has made serving one's country seem both hip and once again noble. Actor Kal Penn left his role on House, the hit television show, this week to take a position within Mr. Obama's administration. Admittedly, Mr. Penn will not be volunteering, but his switch from Hollywood actor to mid-level bureaucrat seems to be motivated by a commitment to public service. "There's not a lot of financial reward in these jobs," he told Entertainment Weekly. "But, obviously, the opportunity to serve in a capacity like this is an incredible honour."

Other people are reconsidering the relative value of selflessness amid perceptions that the current economic tumult was partly caused by investors acting out of self-interest and greed, said Jean-Guy Bigeau, the executive director of Katimavik.

"When Obama talks about engaging in service for the collective and the community, he is speaking to people beyond his borders as well," he said. "The population is recognizing the need. It has a lot to do with the economy and a return to values associated with the community."

Economic issues may be pushing people to volunteer for practical reasons as well. Students graduating into a dismal job market may see volunteering as a better way to gain experience and bide their time until the economy improves. Many non-profit organizations have also reported an influx of laid-off workers wanting to volunteer as a way to fill their days.

Interest in community service -- both politically and amongst the population -- has ebbed and flowed over the decades. Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps, an early ancestor of the AmeriCorps, in 1933 while Mr. Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961. In Canada, Katimavik was founded in 1977 by Senator Jacques Hebert while Mr. Trudeau's father was prime minister. Funding for the program was cut in 1986 by the newly elected Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, prompting Mr. Hebert to stage a hunger strike for 21 days. The program was revived in 1994 with 66 participants and today sends roughly 1,000 young people to volunteer with 900 non-profit organizations across the country.

Participants in Katimavik typically enrol for nine months, dividing the time among three communities across the country. The experience is designed to not only offer skills training and insight into future careers, but also instill an understanding of Canada as a country.

"I'd never travelled within Canada before doing this program and it just made me aware how diverse our nation is," said Sarah Ginther, who volunteered with Katimavik in 2002. "It sounds schmaltzy, but it made me have more national pride in the end because I had seen so much more and I knew so much more."

If Mr. Trudeau's bill does move forward, however, advocates for the volunteer sector say Canada will still be far behind other countries in supporting national service efforts. The U. S. Congress last month passed a bill that would expand AmeriCorps to 250,000 participants, up from the 75,000 currently involved. The United Kingdom, Germany and France already have national youth service strategies similar to the measures proposed by Mr. Trudeau. "It's not that we don't engage in volunteer activity in Canada, because we do," Mr. Bigeau said. "What is needed is more incentives from the political leadership, more sharing of vision, and more incentives to volunteer."

Mr. Trudeau's proposal is far more modest than those being pursued in the United States, and his audience in the hotel basement far tinier than the one reached by Mr. Obama with his call to service. Still, he seemed to persuade his early-morning crowd.

"I really like your concept -- it's a fantastic idea," said one man, before adding, "but I wonder what else you have in mind to engage the youth."

"I was pretty pleased with bringing forward national youth service as a first step," Mr. Trudeau said wryly, before turning earnest once again. "But, of course, it leads to much else."