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opinion

Chris Taylor is senior correspondent for Reuters and a contributor to Fortune magazine.

When an unexpected e-mail appeared in my inbox the other day, it felt like it reached right into my chest.

“The Board of Canada World Youth – Jeunesse Canada Monde regrets that it has had to make a difficult decision to conclude youth-focused programming and end our organization’s activities,” it says.

CWY-JCM has organized youth exchanges all over the planet for decades, putting crews of volunteers to work in thousands of development projects both in Canada and abroad. To my friends in the U.S., where I live now, I usually describe it as our uniquely Canadian version of the Peace Corps.

For myself, the news pulled me back in time to a period 30 years ago. I was blissfully young then, and in the middle of my undergraduate studies at McGill, I took a year off in 1992-93 to join CWY. I was assigned to the Indonesia-Quebec program.

Here’s how it worked: Each participant was paired with an Indonesian counterpart – me with a cerebral fellow from Sulawesi named Sukanto – and then placed with host families in our respective countries. First off, four months in Richmond, a picturesque town in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. We were slotted on a dairy farm, where my counterpart got to savour the full Canadian experience of waking up at 5:30 a.m. to milk cows.

Then, a similar stretch of time in Kota Intan, a small village on a river in the middle of Indonesia’s Riau province, across the Malacca Strait from Malaysia. Since this was in the days before cellphones, and the village didn’t have any landlines – Pekanbaru was the big local metropolis – we were truly in our own self-contained universe for a few months.

For a kid from British Columbia, suddenly finding yourself in the middle of the Sumatran jungle was a crash course in cultural adaptation. There we built roads, sunk wells, painted the village mosque and learned each other’s languages.

On the initial application, you were able to indicate your country preferences, and I had chosen a nation I had no familiarity with in order to get as far away from my own life experience as possible. I thought it would be interesting to break my own world view wide open. I certainly got that.

Just as we were pulled from all regions of Canada, so our counterparts came from all regions of Indonesia – Java, Bali, Kalimantan, Sumatra, Sulawesi, West Papua and more. On our own, with our little group of about 15, maybe we didn’t change all that much. Maybe the concept seems silly or idealistic, especially in these more cynical times.

And governments can certainly have their own motives for such programs, such as giving cover to other activities. Our exchange took place under the regime of Indonesian strongman Suharto, for instance, who wasn’t exactly known for a positive record on human rights.

But on our grassroots human level, we were real people making real connections and doing real projects. For those of us who devoted almost a year of our lives to it – and there are so many of us across the country – it held a lot of meaning.

Multiply our experience by countless other exchanges all over the world, over 50 years, affecting the lives of over two million people, and it certainly changed a lot of things.

And it absolutely changed me. I was 20 then; I’m 50 now. The years pass by in a blur, each one seemingly quicker than the last, but that year stands out as something singular.

Breaking Ramadan fasts with plates of nasi goreng and beef rendang, bowls of bakso, and skewers of satay. Sitting under the rambutan tree, sharing fruit with host families. Listening to haunting gamelan music, learning the martial art of pencak silat, witnessing the hypnotic shadows of Javanese wayang theatre, or hearing the morning call to prayer in the most populous Muslim nation on Earth.

The program’s closing isn’t necessarily a loss for past participants, because we still have those memories to hold onto, and the friendships with both Canadian and Indonesian participants that last to this day. (Yes, there’s a Facebook group.)

But it’s a definitely a loss for those to come, and a big one. Those Canadian kids who might not have that opportunity to go halfway across the world, get outside of their own cultures and circles, and create ties where they never existed before.

I understand that in the COVID-19 era, when the organization had to back away from in-person exchanges and reinvent itself on the fly, it became a monumental challenge to even operate. As programs were cancelled, funding shortages soon followed.

With a deadly virus continuing to circle the globe, when will it be safe to resume again, and how much risk can you expect organizers or volunteers to take on? There are no easy answers – either for the program itself, or the politicians who fund it.

But the e-mail was still a gut punch, one I was hoping would never come: “Quite simply, this beloved, quintessentially Canadian, organization no longer has the means to continue operations,” the update says.

It looks like it’s gone, at least for now. Somehow it feels like a little piece of me has gone with it – and maybe a little piece of Canada, too.

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