A little over two dozen people stood or sat in small clusters around several tables in the brightly lit community hall. More than half were local women, men and children from both Sheshatshiu and North West River, who were there to welcome 11 youth freshly arrived, the last in a line of more than 30 years of service — the last Katimavik group.
Julie, the project leader, approached me smiling.
“I didn’t expect to see you here,” she said.
Normally, I probably would not have gone to this welcoming party, since I’ve already been to a few of them over the years, enough to know they’re actually unnecessary. They usually take place a week or two after arrival and by then, a new group will have already learned the genuine depth of Labrador’s welcome.
In the first days after a new group arrives, everyone they meet — where they live, where they work, where they shop, where they socialize (when they have the time) — lets them know in word, gesture and deed that each and every one of them, no matter from what part of Canada they come or what language they speak, should consider themselves at home.
The message is universal and mutual: if you need something, just ask.
That is the welcome I got as a member of a Katimavik group that flew into Goose Bay on a chilly midnight in 1981. That was during the first incarnation of the program, five years after it was conceived by Sen. Jacques Herbert and set in motion by the government of Pierre Trudeau. We were the second group to have ever come to Labrador, but we had no trouble settling in.
The first group, the one that had just preceded us, had built such a strong foundation of friendship with the community of Labrador that the bedraggled pan-Canadian group of kids that we were felt not only accepted and welcomed, but also respected and valued as Katimavik participants.
In those bygone days, Katimavik was still growing, still establishing new programs in new communities, still seeking ways to attract more teenagers to become participants and more young adults to become leaders. It was still looking for new and simple ways to serve the common good whenever and wherever possible.
A lot changed as the years passed, mostly diminishments forced by budget cuts, but what has lasted undiminished are the open hearts and open doors participants find when they come to Labrador — when, in fact, they arrive in any of the many Canadian communities that have known them for three decades or more.
This last official Katimavik welcome ceremony in North West River did not stand out. It was a quiet affair, just like all previous ones have been. A local dignitary was on hand to deliver the actual verbal welcome and to invite all present to dig into the plates of cheese and crackers, fruits, vegetables and biscuits available on tables in one corner.
While eating, people mingled and chatted and got to know each other, and the participants presently sang a song for the small, but appreciative audience. First, however, they introduced themselves, said where they’d been born and had grown up. A fair number were from Ontario and Quebec and, as usual, the rest have come from scattered places in both the east and the west.
The participants also named the jobs they’d be doing during Katimavik’s final three months and in effect provided a list of local organizations suffering cuts from the 2012 federal budget: the Labrador Heritage Society, the Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation School, the Nunatsiavut Department of Health, the Shakastueu Pishum Daycare, the Charles Andrew Youth Treatment Centre, the Sheshatshiu Innu Band Council and the Town of North West River. That’s 11 positions lost in North West River and Sheshatshiu alone.
So, while the welcome seemed understated, it is always genuine and the real party comes at the end of the rotation when the community gives the participants a grand sendoff and the participants show their deep gratitude in return for all they’ve learned and experienced.
Since this is the last rotation, the final party is likely to be a big one, one not to be missed.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.