Montreal — Spending the winter in an uninsulated house by the sea in St. Anthony's, Newfoundland, and using melted snow for dishwater may sound more like exile than something one would volunteer for. But Sandra Paquette did just that.
The 17-year-old native of Cornwall, Ontario, lived in the remote sealing and fishing area last winter, doing a combination of hard physical work and community service through Katimavik, an educational program sponsored by the Canadian government.
''We were able to spend some time in Labrador'' - the mainland portion of Newfoundland bordering the province of Quebec - ''and that was a real culture shock,'' Ms. Paquette said. ''The school bus was a Ski-Doo, and the airport was a frozen pond.''
Katimavik is an Inuit word for meeting place. Young Canadians from coast to coast are selected for Katimavik. They meet one another, work three months together in each of three communities across the country, and are encouraged to develop global perspectives on international issues. The other Canadian locations for Ms. Paquette's group were Wakaw, Saskatchewan, and Montreal. Something of a domestic ''Peace Corps'' intended to foster a sense of national unity, the program immerses participants in Canada's diverse cultures, which often exist side by side.
Katimavik has three major components: physical work, primarily on behalf of protecting and improving the environment, which takes up about 75 percent of participants' time; community service requested by local schools, hospitals, and other agencies in host communities; and self-discovery through the rich cultural and educational experience provided for the Katimavik volunteer.
Each participant is a Canadian citizen or permanent resident between the ages of 17 and 21. Each receives room, board, a dollar a day for spending money, and a $1,000 honorarium upon completing the full nine months - plus an investment by the government in his or her development through Katimavik, which exceeds $10, 000.
After spending three months in one community, an 11-member group moves to another project in a different province for the next three months, then moves again. Each project community receives a different group of participants every three months over the nine-month period.
Since Canada is officially a bilingual English- and French-speaking country, Katimavik participants spend three of their nine months in a province where their second language and culture predominate.
Katimavik volunteers are often billeted with local families to learn more about the community and their second language. But not all communities are receptive to having Katimavik members, even though community groups help sponsor the projects, Ms. Paquette says. Her group's final assignment was Wakaw, ''an insular farming community with a high percentage of elderly people, where many members of the community seemed to be suspicious of our group, thinking we were everything from a religious cult to juvenile delinquents,'' she said.
The negative feelings did not directly affect the work of the group, who were cutting a fitness trail five or six miles outside the community. But it did draw participants closer together and remind them not to be closed-minded themselves, says Ms. Paquette.
She says she feels enriched by her Katimavik experience, however, and is considering applying for a paid staff job as a group leader. ''When we started out, we were all so different. Mainly I learned tolerance and not to pre-judge people. The end result was not a day-to-day happiness necessarily, but an overall sense of happiness.''
''The program provides travel, adventure, and Canadian experience,'' says Michael Crelinsten, Katimavik learning programs development officer in Montreal. ''Altruism is the motive of many who want to join, because community service is our raison d'etre.''
''The work the participants do in community service often is manual, labor-intensive work. In one community the participants complained that they weren't learning anything by having to paint chairs for the community center and that the task was boring. We tried to help them understand that they were learning self-discipline; that if what they were doing seemed tedious, that was not a reason for abandoning it. Sticking to it is a skill Katimavik teaches; it is among the skills that schools must teach.
''But there's more to it than that,'' Mr. Crelinsten said. ''We emphasize experience but also reflection on experience. Katimavik is a safe and supportive community where you can voice objections and then be asked to think something through from another standpoint.
''Katimavik is a learning process rooted in the whole community. Participants have access to a diverse bank of experience. I would call it an adjunct, rather than an alternative, to formal classroom education.
''Originally it attracted people looking for adventure. In its early years it appealed to the middle class who could afford the luxury of environmental concerns and remove themselves from the job market for nine months. Now we transcend economic class lines. Canada has unemployment, and a higher percent are applying because there's nothing else to do,'' Crelinsten continued.
Katimavik is largely the result of two men's vision. In the early 1970s, Barney Danson, a Liberal member of the federal Parliament, who later became defense minister in the Trudeau government, developed the idea of a Canadian educational experience that would blend volunteer service, discovery of the country, and a simple, physically challenging life style.
At about the same time, Jacques Hebert, a well-known Quebec journalist, author, and publisher, who was made a member of the Canadian Senate earlier this year, proposed a similar national youth program.
The two men met to discuss their ideas in 1976. The next year Katimavik was born in the form of a one-year pilot project with 1,000 participants and 30 projects, funded with an $11 million budget.
This year Katimavik has a $77 million budget, 2,500 participants, and 207 projects. The program has grown steadily in its first seven years. Next year the number of participants is expected to increase from 2,500 to 4,000, with 252 projects planned, Crelinsten says.
Over the last two years Katimavik has added a program, ''Introducing: the World,'' to encompass international perspectives, he says.
Ms. Paquette says the program helped increase her awareness of countries beyond Canada. She did background reading on Europe, an area in which she had limited knowledge. The group cooked a number of ethnic meals and discussed over dinner what they were learning about various parts of the world.