My rating: 9/10.Funny and thought provoking. This is the book that made me a Will Ferguson fan, way back in 1998, when I plucked it off the “New Releases” bookstore shelf solely for the reference to Katimavik. A few minutes browsing and I was sold. Liked it then, like it now. A very Canadian memoir.
“Funny, touching, and never maudlin . . .” – Montreal Gazette
“A rollicking memoir” – Globe & Mail
“A coming of age story with a fierce and nationalistic bite.” – January Magazine
With Will Ferguson in the literary spotlight these days, due to his Booker Prize win for 419: A Novel just a week ago, I felt the urge to dig through the bookshelves and re-read the my first ever Ferguson book, the now-obscure 1998 coming-of-age-Canadian-style memoir, I Was a Teenage Katima-Victim.
Ah, Katimavik! What a well-meaning and ambitious, oh so Canadian idea!
In my Grade 11 year I too went to one of those earnest presentations in the school gym, listened with deep interest to the bubbly recruiter, and, most importantly, mused over what I could do with the thousand dollar pay-off at the end.
I even went so far as to take a brochure home to my parents, who flicked through it with scornful dismissal. The airy-fairy notion of travelling and seeing Canada basically on the taxpayers’ dime was not something to countenance for one of their children. In my father’s eyes such programs were akin to “those deadbeats collecting welfare”, and he quite literally would have starved on the street rather than apply for a government handout, or anything which could be remotely conceived of as such. To top it off, Katimavik was supported by none other than “that Liberal bastard”, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who my father hated with a black passion, for reasons I’m still not quite clear on.
By the end of my Grade 12 year Katimavik was a distant memory, a momentary what-if? fairytale I had told myself. I had moved out of my parents’ home into a nasty and dank – but blessedly my own – basement suite in town, and was working full-time waitressing (nights and weekends) while struggling to make it through the tatters of my last high school year to collect that all-important graduation diploma. My love life had unexpectedly taken off, and I was deeply occupied in the here and now. The last thing I now wanted was to rip up those tentaively establishing adult roots and travel. But a soft spot remained for the grand ideas embodied in Katimavik, and my ears ever after were sensitive to the sound of the name.
Will Ferguson took the bait, made the plunge, and survived to tell the tale. Here is a 1999 interview in January magazine:
The book … is delightful: a coming of age story with a fierce and nationalistic bite.
To explain the reference, Katimavik was a Canadian government funded and sponsored program that blossomed in the 1970s. Of course. While the program was active, it brought thousands of young Canadians together to do “meaningful work.” Everything from soup kitchens to nature trails to heritage sites: over 20,000 “katima-victims” went through the program. “The scope of the program was staggering,” writes Ferguson. “1400 different communities across Canada, and more than 200,000 people directly involved or affected. For better of worse, Katimavik helped shape an entire generation.”
For the lavish sum of $1 a day and “all the granola you could eat” these 20,000 17 to 21 year-olds were taken far from their home towns for a year to see first-hand the cultural mosaic of which they were – by birth – a part.
“The thinking about Katimavik was that there is something redeeming about manual labor,” says Ferguson. “And the thing is, it just isn’t true at all. Anybody doing manual labor knows that it’s a tough gig and if they had the option not to do it, they wouldn’t. The second notion is that somehow once we get to know each other, we’ll like each other. This is the biggest flaw and it runs right through a lot of thinking. They think that, just because you and I are enemies, if we got to know each other, we’d like each other: that’s a big flawed premise because – quite often – the more you get to know each other, the more you realize that you have nothing in common.”
Despite his misgivings about the program’s principals, “Katimavik worked on a personal level, despite its good intentions. Just because any time you throw someone into something that big and that intense you come out of it with a rounder personality.”
Now 34, Ferguson’s personality is sufficiently rounded to take us along with him on great rollicking rides. Thus far he’s taken us from the wilds of Canada to the back roads of Japan. Whatever he has in store for us next is sure to be fun: and will hopefully raise still more eyebrows. | Linda L. Richards, January Magazine, February 1999
There is a certain irony in the fact that, soon after Ferguson’s participation in the now-iconic Canadian youth travel-service-work-cultural program, it was axed in 1986 by the newly elected Mulroney Progressive Conservative government. Katimavik was resurrected in a slightly different form in 1994, and just this year, 2012, has been cut again, this time by the Conservative Harper government. Another rescue mission is afoot, to reimagine Katimavik for yet another generation of young Canadians. I hope it succeeds.
This book has been out of print for years, and is unaccountably ignored in most discussions of Ferguson’s work, which is a shame. Despite the graphically appalling cover, the tale told within is worth reading, especially for anyone who has memories of Katimavik in its sincere and slightly loopy heyday. A bit raw in spots – it was, after all, only Will Ferguson’s second published book, following hard on the heels of surprise bestseller Why I Hate Canadians – it nevertheless gets better and better as it goes along. Laugh out loud funny in places, there is a thread of sincerity running through it which is deeply appealing.
More than a mere curiousity piece and a relic of the author’s youth, it’s a rather grand little read. One of those “Proud to be Canadian” feel-good things. Recommended.
And here is link to the Goodreads page.