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I Was a Teenage Katima-Victim: A Canadian Odyssey

by Will Ferguson

Only in Canada would a book about why the author hates his compatriots become a best-seller. Self-deprecation seems to be a popular pastime in this country. Why this is so, I’m not sure – perhaps we wish to beat others to the punch, or maybe it’s just that any attention is better than no attention. And if you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?

The title of Will Ferguson’s newest book, I Was a Teenage Katima-Victim, benefits from the same hyperbole that made his first, Why I Hate Canadians, so controversial.

Interspersed with letters written home, Ferguson’s narrative reads like a novel of the absurd, a coming-of-age tale for both Ferguson and Canada in those naive pre-Mulroney years that everyone likes to get nostalgic about these days. The government youth program, Katimavik, starts off Ferguson, was going to save Canada. “That was the whole idea. That was the driving force behind it. Quixotic? You bet. Canadian? Absolutely.”

Paid a dollar a day and all the granola they could eat, 17- to 21-year-old Katima-victims were brought together from all over Canada to participate in what was called “an apprenticeship for life.” The seven participants in Ferguson’s group, hailing from British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland, all came to the program for very different reasons: At one end of the spectrum, Erik, straight from reform school, and at the other, François, on his way to law school. In communities across Canada, they worked everywhere from soup kitchens to outdoor conservation trails, while learning how to cope with each other – seemingly in spite of the project’s set-up and the endless subcommittees and politically correct doublespeak, if you believe Ferguson. Each group serves as a microcosm of the strengths and weaknesses of Canada: “loud, chaotic, well-intentioned.” This could also describe Ferguson’s book. It’s not subtle, it doesn’t have much direction, but it’s certainly well intentioned, and quite often entertaining.

Notwithstanding the program’s foibles, Ferguson obviously cares quite a lot about Katimavik, even if it is in a sort of condescending, “there, there, wasn’t-that-cute” sort of way. The program has evidently shaped his views of what it means to be Canadian, which in his understanding is to be a child of adventure. And if that’s the case, then Katimavik and I Was a Teenage Katima-Victim are both truly Canadian.