"A person is born gentle and weak; at death they are hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap; at death they are withered and dry.
Therefore stiff and unbending is the discipline of death.
Gentle and yielding is the discipline of life." -- Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching
It's become a depressingly familiar Canadian scenario -- a clearly meritorious organization or project producing palpable good, operating on a shoestring budget, supported by all who have knowledge of the sector, and recognized as producing outstanding results -- instead of being rewarded for its stellar work, is nonsensically budgeted out of existence. Are we talking about the long form census? The Experimental Lakes Area? The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory? The long gun registry? The National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy? In this case the object of the axe attack is Katimavik.
Katimavik (the Inuktitut word for "meeting place") has been an outstanding Canadian success story since 1977 when it was created under the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau. Since then, over 30,000 young Canadians have participated in the program, which has been staged in over 2,000 communities in every province and territory of the country. To call it a resounding success might even be to understate its impact and accomplishments. It currently works with over 545 partner organizations across Canada in which youth partcipate as volunteers in a variety of program streams (Katimavik Horizon, Cultural discovery and civic engagement, Eco-citizenship and active living, Second language and cultural identity, Éco-stage, and the British Columbia pilot project on sustainable agriculture) supporting the work of many vital civic, cultural, environmental, and social organizations.
Participants acquire personal, cultural, and professional experiences, learn skills boosting employability, participate in civic and community engagement, and play an important role in melding together the Canadian cultural fabric. Traveling coast to coast to coast, they become internal cultural ambassadors, sharing their backgrounds, knowledge, and experiences with geographically, culturally, and ethnically distinct communities across the country. Katimavik is a living illustration of how to knit the geographic and cultural fabric of the second largest nation on the planet into a cohesive whole in which scattered individuals and communities find a common language, purpose, and identity. How much better could it get?
Clearly it's not good enough for the Harper Conservatives who announced on March 29, 2012 that the program would be eliminated. Despite the fact that this stellar organization -- which in 2008 was granted consultative status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council, allowing Katimavik to represent Canada internationally at relevant fora -- operates on a shoestring budget of $14 million, Conservative Heritage Minister James Moore, the federal official responsible for the program, told the House of Commons: "As minister of Canadian heritage and official languages, I have to make difficult decisions and easy decisions. Ending funding for Katimavik is one of the easiest decisions I have ever made."
When this murky explanation proved both implausible and incomprehensible, Moore cited the high per-person costs of the program compared with other government youth initiatives. Such explanations are the last refuge of the bean counter, completely disconnected from the effectiveness and outcomes of the programs they are supposed to administer. Rather than focusing on the excellent track record of the organization as a Canadian institution enriching the fabric of the country, and a nationally and internationally lauded youth initiative, we are supposed to care only about a nickel-and-dime vision of Canadian society. It's such a shallow objective -- bereft of vision, reason, and fact -- that one can scarcely believe that a government would plausibly advance such an argument … but decisions based on such misinformation have become the new norm of Canadian governance.
One of the many champions of Katimavik, who have refused to buy into this miserly vision of Canadian society, is Charmaine Borg, the Member of Parliament for Terrebonne-Blainville, Québec. Borg is one of the McGill Five (Charmaine Borg, Matthew Dubé, Laurin Liu, Mylène Freeman, and Jamie Nicholls), grassroots NDP activists and McGill University students, all of whom defeated Bloc Québécois incumbents in the 2011 federal election and became Members of Parliament.
I first heard Borg speak on June 23, 2011 when she gave her maiden speech in the House of Commons during the Canadian Postal workers lockout filibuster. I had tuned into CPAC expecting to listen for an hour or so to get a flavour of the debate. Instead, I spent hours watching, riveted by the drama, and spellbound as MP after MP -- many of them speaking for the first time in Parliament -- gave powerful, engaging, and heartfelt reasons why the government should not be running roughshod over collective-bargaining rights. One of those speakers was Charmaine Borg:
"The right to associate and to bargain collectively is the first right young workers learn about. I am disappointed to see that the government is not respecting this fundamental right in its bill. I understand why this bill has young workers so worried. With this bill, the government is telling the workers of tomorrow that they cannot expect the same good wages and fringe benefits as today's workers.
"I would like to take a moment to describe the Canada this government is in the process of creating for my generation with bills like Bill C-6. Such a Canada would be a country that does not recognize the workers' right to a collective bargaining process, a country that does not believe that Canadians who work 40 hours or more a week deserve decent wages and a pension that will allow them to retire with dignity."
In her, and in those of so many others who I heard speak over those Fifty-eight hours, I heard the voice of a new generation of political representatives. Rather than being the parliamentary liability that some pundits had forecast -- naïve youngsters, wet behind their political ears, and prone to gaffes and blunders that would embarrass the party -- I was struck with how composed, energized, smart, and articulate this new generation of parliamentarians was, especially in comparison with so many of the tired and jaded political hacks on the other side of the House that mocked and heckled their speeches.
Borg, the New Democratic Party's Digital Issues critic, has thrown herself into the campaign to try and save Katimavik. On April 3, 2012, just after the Harper Conservatives had announced that they would close down the organization, she introduced Motion M-352 into the House of Commons:
M-352: "That, in the opinion of the House, the government should: (a) recognize the economic importance of the Katimavik program to over 90 communities across Canada that benefit from the program; (b) recognize the importance of the relationship between the Katimavik program and hundreds of not-for-profit organizations across Canada; (c) promote and support youth programs, such as Katimavik, that teach youth the merits and the importance of volunteering, civic engagement and bilingualism; (d) recognize that Katimavik promotes important intercultural exchanges between English and French Canada; (e) reinstate the $14 million per year funding to the Katimavik program; and (f) work with all Members of the House to address any concerns they might have with the running of the program."
It's a private member's motion that she expects will come to a vote sometime during the next session of Parliament. In the meantime, she has launched a petition in support of Katimavik, which has garnered the support of over 7,000 Canadians. She has been relentless in opposing the impending destruction of Katimavik. She has tabled petition after petition in the House of Commons, pelting Hertiage Minister James Moore with evidence that Canadians want the organization to continue and do not support the government's attempt to liquidate it.
This summer she has been touring across the country visiting Whitehorse, Calgary, Lethbridge, Winnipeg, Sioux Lookout, Hamilton, Toronto, Terrebonne, Charlottetown, Moncton, Wolfville, Halifax, and St. John's. In every community she has met with past and present Katimavik participants, with organizations that have benefited by the participation of Katimavik, and members of the community who have seen the work that has resulted from the program. I caught up with her over breakfast in Halifax.
Christopher Majka: What does Katimavik mean to you? Why have you decided to work on this initiative?
Charmaine Borg: When I was elected I told myself that I need to represent youth in the House of Commons. That was one of my personal missions. I need to represent all groups and all generations because they are my constituents, but I wanted to take a particular focus on youth. I had some friends and family who had participated in Katimavik, and I saw the impact that it had on their lives -- they still talk about it every day. I really saw how it changed them for the better. When Katimavik got cut I started getting phone calls saying, "Charmaine, we have to do something about this." So I quickly wrote a motion, and then I started with a petition, and began giving testimonies every day to the Minister.
[This summer] I decided to do this tour to talk to the communities directly, to past Katimavikers, people who were still in their host communities because of Katimavik, and organizations in the community that had welcomed Katimavik over the years. I learned what an impact the program had on the individuals who went through it. I realized the void that is going to be left in communities when Katimavik is no longer there. In towns like Sioux Lookout, the entire town was practically built by Katimavikers. Everywhere I went there were traces of Katimavik. In a small town of 5,000 people, having this wave of youth arrive with fresh ideas and fresh perspectives, and willing and able to help, it's really made a huge difference.
I also saw the positive view of youth and their potential [that Katimavik created]. Taking away that opportunity and giving youth fewer options, has made people in those communities wonder "What is this government's strategy for youth? Do they even have one? Do they care what happens to young people if they don't want to go to university right after high school?"
Christopher Majka: Why do you think the government is cutting Katimavik?
Charmaine Borg: People ask me "What are the arguments? What has the government given you?" And the answer is nothing. They haven't given any legitimate arguments as to why this program needs to be cut.
When I asked the Minister in the House, "Why cut this program? Why not let the 600 youths who were supposed to take part in this program this summer?" His answer was, "As the Minister for Canadian Heritage I have a lot of difficult decisions to make and this was the easiest one I ever had to make." He was proud of himself. It was really disrespectful to everyone who [was familiar with] this program and saw it as a wonderful thing.
So then his argument changed when he started getting a lot more pressure from [people] who were starting to speak out against this. He changed his argument to "it wasn't efficient." But he never described or defined efficiency. So, when you think about it, $14 million is the cost of one F-35 engine. So, I can't help but think that it was purely ideological. Because it was a Liberal program. And that hurts not only [participants] but people in communities across Canada.
Christopher Majka: If the government claims that it cares about youth, and it is also concerned about crime prevention, isn't Katimavik exactly the kind of initiative that they should support?
Charmaine Borg: The point you bring up about crime prevention is really important. I feel that youth these days are encouraged to take this very linear path. That you should know exactly what you want to do. That you should go to university. And in many cases people indebt themselves going to university. Or you go straight into the workforce. But first of all, it's very hard to get a job, a good job, in the workforce. And Katimavik gave experience to people who didn't want to go straight into the workforce. There's a family in my riding whose son participated in Katimavik. He was an alcoholic and heavy drug abuser, and after participating in Katimavik he was able to get out of that because there was another option for him.
Christopher Majka: What do you think will be lost if Katimavik disappears?
Charmaine Borg: We have such a big country that very few people have the money or the time to go and explore and find out what our country is: all its different realities. I realized in going to all these communities that we're still all Canadians, even if there are really big differences in each place. I think it's important for someone to get a view of that.
Another thing that I heard was that the youth who participated in the program brought those different realities of Canada with them when they went to the communities they worked in. They would say, "Oh, I come from Quebec, and this is what it's like over there. And then I went to this other place through Katimavik, and this is what it's like there." So people learned what it's like in Sioux Lookout, in the North, in Calgary.
If Katimavik disappears a lot of organizations are going to struggle. Many organizations already have to struggle to survive, and to take one more thing away from them is another slap in their face. I saw a lot of organizations that don't know what they are going to do without the solid base of Katimavik volunteers. Especially in smaller communities like Whitehorse and Charlottetown.
Christopher Majka: Eighteen months ago you were a political science student at McGill getting ready for a foreign exchange to Mexico. Today, at 21 years old, you are the Member of Parliament for Terrebonne-Blainville. What's it been like making the transition?
Charmaine Borg: When I first thought of entering politics, because this was something that I always wanted to do, I was talking with my mom and she said, "Charmaine, you're too nice for politics." And I said, "No, no, no. That's not true. Jack is nice. Look at Jack Layton, he's a nice guy and he's in politics." And she said, "Oh, yeah, you're right, he is nice. Maybe you can be a nice politician." So I always had this really positive view. I'm actually re-reading Jack's book right now and in the introduction he talks about how our duty is to work together. And he talks about it in such an optimistic way. And so you come into politics with that view, and you feel empowered. And then you get there and there is absolutely no will from the other side to cooperate.
There's still a lot of sexism in the House, which is something that I really did not expect. I thought that we were way past that. For example, the fact that there's a "hot and not" list that comes out every Valentine's Day. I remember writing to Megan Leslie [Borg's parliamentary mentor] when it came out. We had just been talking about sexism a few nights before, saying how sad it was that this was still going on. You really realize what an old-fashioned institution Parliament is and how it really needs to be shaken up. And we have a lot of work to do. We are nowhere near there.
And the decorum in the House is another thing that I've been really upset about. I've heard people yelling. Are we in a zoo? How are we supposed to provide an example for our children? We want to stop bullying, but there are bullies in the House. When I give speeches about Katimavik, Minister Moore mocks how I talk with my hands [Borg is a very animated and expressive speaker who artfully uses her hands to emphasize the points she is making]. I can see him on the other side of the House making these gestures. And I think, "Are you five years old?"
But it's important not to lose the sense of optimism that Jack gave our party and our country and to remember that we're there to make change.
Christopher Majka: How about working in your constituency? Do you think your age is an asset or a liability for you?
Charmaine Borg: When I talk to my constituents a lot of them are disillusioned about corruption and politicians. I think this is a positive side of being young. They know that I don't work for any corporations, that I'm not the CEO of anything, that I don't have any ties to anybody. I've had people say to me, "I'm happy that you are here. You're fresh, you're new, you don't have any history. You're just there to represent our interests."
And I've tried to open it up and say, "It's not only case work, but if you have an issue, come to me. We know people in the community who will be able to help you." That is the most rewarding thing.
I had a woman call a few weeks ago. She has five kids and was being thrown out of her apartment, and didn't know where to go. I happened to know someone who was away on vacation for three months and wasn't using their apartment. So I called and they said, "OK, no problem." And so I was able to tell her "I've found somewhere that you can stay for a few months." That has nothing to do with government services, but being able to help someone like that, is the best thing in the world for me. It makes all the hardships in Ottawa worthwhile. Ottawa is very tense right now. It can get very discouraging. No matter how optimistic you are it's a really ugly environment right now. It's a government that is very closed. I would even say that it's anti-democratic. I don't actually believe that Stephen Harper believes in the power of working together. And I feel that when I'm back in my riding and can help someone … well, honestly that's why I do it.
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We finish breakfast, I bid her adieu, and she heads out to the airport for the next stop on her Katimavik tour. A valiant mission or a Quixotic quest?
As Katimavik participants brought themselves and their experiences to the communities where they worked, enriching both in the process, so has Charmaine Borg become an ambassador for the organization, bringing her energy, passion, and commitment to communities across the country -- and both have grown through the process. Her last words, as she rushes out of the house:
"If you create a big enough wave, and get people to mobilize and speak out, then there is a possibility for change. If you don't try, then you certainly have a lot fewer possibilities, right?"
When an irresistible force encounters an immovable object, which will prevail? It's an ancient conundrum. For an answer, I consult an ancient sage, Lao Tsu. The eight-one short "chapters" of his book, the Tao Te Ching written some 2,600 years ago, remain amongst the most lucid and suggestive of personal and political texts:
"An army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
Thus the hard and inflexible will fall.
The soft and yielding will overcome."
With her youthful energy, optimism, sense of fun, flexible tactics, and relentless persistence it's clear to me that, sooner or later, Borg is certain to prevail.
Christopher Majka is a biologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and arts advocate. He conducts research on the ecology and biodiversity of beetles. He is a research associate of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and a member of the Project Democracy team.