Editorial: Travelling teens good for Canada

As we celebrate Canada Day Sunday, here is a thought worth pondering. How many British Columbians can say they have visited all 10 provinces? How many of us have been to the Yukon, Northwest Territories or Nunavut?

The obstacles are obvious. Canada is the world’s second-largest country and its size is a formidable barrier. Victoria is on an island in the Pacific. Iqaluit is on an island in the Arctic Ocean. St. John’s is on an island in the Atlantic.

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But distances like these are not just a barrier to travel. They are also a barrier to the sharing of hopes and aspirations that hold any country together.

With this thought in mind, nearly 50 years ago the federal government created a program that enabled groups of teenagers to leave home and spend a month in a different region of the country.

More than 20 institutions — primarily universities and colleges with dorm rooms to spare — host kids who have been accepted into the Explore program. Most are teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19.

French-speaking youngsters are assigned to an English-speaking program, and they spend a month immersed in that language. The opposite is true for English-speaking kids.

Here in B.C., three post-secondary institutions, the University of Victoria, Langara College and the University of British Columbia, will host 415 English-speaking students from across the country. Their challenge is to speak French for a month.

But language immersion is merely part of the program. A wide range of social activities is laid on so that participants get a chance to learn something of the surrounding community.

The University of Victoria arranges trips to locations such as the Sooke Potholes, Shawnigan Lake, Gold River and the Royal B.C. Museum.

There’s a camping weekend at Rathtrevor Beach, whale-watching excursions and talks by guest speakers from the French community in Victoria. The program runs from July 3 to Aug. 3, and for those who qualify, there’s a bursary of $2,200 that pays for room and board, tuition fees and other expenses.

This is surely an inspired, and inspiring, idea. Every year, thousands of teenagers will see parts of the country they might never otherwise have visited.

They will gain a better understanding of the differing viewpoints that make up our national character. And they will take home memories that might help temper the inter-regional resentments that are inevitable in a country so large. It’s a lot more difficult to become frustrated with people you’ve come to know personally.

Students who are interested in applying for the program can do so online at the Explore website. There are forms to be filled in, and one must be countersigned by a designated official — usually a school principal, teacher or guidance counsellor.

(The deadline has passed for this year. Applications have to be submitted on or before March 15, and bursary awards are usually announced in early April.)

The website maintains up-to-date status reports on each applicant, and there are always more applicants than available spaces, so there are no guarantees.

But quite often, kids who are higher up on the wait list drop out. That means those lower down on the list shouldn’t give up hope too soon.

A vote of thanks is due to the countless volunteers who give up evenings and weekends to show these young visitors around. They truly are standing on guard for our country.

For ours is a nation with a tempestuous past. There have been moments when linguistic and cultural differences threatened to divide us — indeed, almost did divide us.

The more young Canadians who can participate in the Explore program, the better the chances that such moments will not reoccur.

That’s something to think about as we prepare to celebrate our nation’s 151st birthday.

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