The canary in the coalmine

Michael Johansen
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The public air terminal at 5 Wing Goose Bay is going through a remarkable transformation. It no longer looks anything like the building I entered for the first time more than 30 years ago — after a week-long, cross-country trip by bus, train and airplane that I and 30 other participants of the volunteer youth program called Katimavik had just finished together.

Despite the many changes, all of us would have recognized one thing in the terminal a couple of weeks ago: the sight of a group of young adults from all over Canada, close friends all, who had their luggage piled on the floor around them. They said their goodbyes to Labrador and to each other (those who were first to separate after many months of living and working together) and then they filed through security and boarded the different aircraft that took them to their homes.

Labrador, as it happens, had the dubious honour of seeing off the very last Katimavik groups in the country — those that had been living in North West River and Happy Valley-Goose Bay since April.

All the other groups across Canada had already been shipped out of their host communities a few days earlier, never to be replaced — since Katimavik’s goals of improving civic society while helping young Canadians become knowledgeable and confident citizens did not conform with Conservative government policy.

Despite the noteworthy nature of the occasion, the last Katimavik group got no special send-off — certainly not from the local MP, who no doubt had more pressing matters to discuss in the House of Commons.

By chance, since he was flying out on business of his own, the mayor of Happy Valley-Goose Bay was able to offer his farewells personally. (It might be taken as a measure of Katimavik’s success that every one of the young participants recognized the mayor and he seemed to recognize every one of them, too.)


Quiet day

Otherwise it was just another normal day in the bright new terminal, and those participants did not stand out from the many other travellers as they boarded their planes and went on their way.

However, that lack of fanfare for the Katimavik group’s departure should not be taken to mean that Katimavik won’t be greatly missed in Labrador, and everywhere else in Canada where the program set up shop.

Their houses in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and North West River won’t stand empty for long, perhaps, but from now on the many necessary jobs the participants did will remain undone; the people they helped will have to look elsewhere for aid; and the strong bonds they made across culture, language and geography will never again be forged.

The old practice of carrying caged canaries into coal mines to test the air (odourless poison gas will kill delicate little birds more quickly than larger humans) is more than apt for this scenario.

Canada is the coal mine, Katimavik is the canary and federal Conservative government policies are the poison gases.

The miners are all those valuable and irreplaceable public Canadian programs, organizations and institutions that in some way don’t conform with the narrow, impoverished vision of Canada as seen through the eyes of the prime minister and his few true-believing acolytes.

Stephen Harper’s minor majority is less than two years old, and already the canary is dead. Katimavik has been thoughtlessly killed off and there’s little chance the 39-per-cent government will replace it with anything at all, no matter what Harper’s minions were promising as they callously watched the small harmless bird choke and die.

What’s next? Maybe the question should be, what will be left?

Two or three years should give the Harper Conservatives plenty of time to further exceed their true mandate and get rid of anything they don’t like, regardless of how valuable and valued it is to Canadians. Chances are great that more institutions, like the CBC and the Canada Council for the Arts, will have disappeared by the next federal election. And, sorry to say, maybe Elections Canada should also think about supplying gasmasks to all the staff — just in case.


Michael Johansen is a writer

living in Labrador.

Organizations: Harper Conservatives, CBC, Canada Council for the Arts Elections Canada

Geographic location: Goose Bay, Canada, Labrador Happy Valley North West River

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Recent comments

  • Heather Wagner
    October 24, 2012 - 14:39

    Great article - my great nephew experienced Katimavik last year and it opened up a whole new world for him. He has now moved to a new province and is having the time of his life. I know so many that have had great experiences with this program. So sad to lose such a valuable program.

  • Stephen
    July 01, 2012 - 15:01

    Does democracy only counts when the liberal left is in charge? I bet you had no problem with Chretien's 40% majority or Paul Martin's minority.

  • Anne T.
    June 30, 2012 - 15:20

    Great article. I too entered that building 30 years ago... Just composed a letter to my MP asking her to support motion M-352 this fall.

  • Andrew Porter
    June 30, 2012 - 08:34

    For those who want to be involved in the Summer of Katimavik our web sites are and

  • Andrew Porter
    June 30, 2012 - 08:32

    This bird had not yet died, just mortally wounded. In the fall House of Commons session, a vote on motion M-352 will reinstate Katimavik funding. We are declaring this the Summer of Katimavik to support that motion. Starting soon the Crossing Canada for Katimavik relay will pass from Iqaluit Nunavut through Goose Bay and all other Katimavik host communities to Ottawa. Also, on July 21, we are having national rallies in support of the program. We are calling on ALL Canadians to let their MP know they want the motion to pass. Help us get the message across Canada to Ottawa!