When Jean Vanier visited a psychiatric hospital in France in 1964, he saw near-medieval conditions. Overcrowded bunks. Outbreaks of violence. And pleas for help. That’s when he became a radical.
At a time when people with disabilities were cut off from society, Vanier dedicated himself to their dignity.
Vanier founded L’Arche, a network of communities where people with intellectual disabilities live and work alongside those without. At the time, this was revolutionary, breaking with the model of institutionalization for an inclusive approach that prioritized relationships. In the decades since, L’Arche has galvanized a movement that’s empowered thousands of people to find a sense of belonging.
Vanier famously said, “I had no plan, I just met people and people with disabilities awoke my heart.”
My father, Fred, didn’t have a plan when he showed up on Vanier’s doorstep in Trosly-Breuil, 90 kilometers north of Paris, when he was in his twenties. My dad was on his way to becoming a teacher when he decided to spend his summer in Europe. His own father had taken exactly one vacation his entire life, closing the convenience store he owned to visit Niagara Falls. A trip to Europe was a big deal for my father.
When he heard of a Canadian who was looking to build a new type of community in France, Dad knocked on his door—as much for a place to crash for a few nights as a desire to get involved. My dad set up residence in Vanier’s office, sleeping on the couch. Most mornings, Vanier’s mother greeted Dad with a kiss on both cheeks.
This was the first L’Arche community. Today, there are more than 150 in 38 countries around the world—including 31 homes across Canada—that provide an alternate model, integrating people on the margins.
"My dad was no activist, but in that house he learned lessons that shaped his life and punctuated my childhood."
But when my dad bunked there in the mid-sixties, there was no grand vision to make society more inclusive and accepting. There wasn’t even plumbing or electricity. They were making it up as they went. Residents cooked meals together and shared stories over the dinner table. They gardened, shopped for groceries and played games. They made and sold crafts for a modest income to help fund the home, and to offer residents a way to contribute.
My dad was no activist, but in that house he learned lessons that shaped his life and punctuated my childhood. Vanier’s legacy of compassion has been a powerful force for good in our world and greatly affected my father’s own view, as well as mine. His time with Vanier inspired our family to lead with love and respect, especially for those made most vulnerable.
Vanier died earlier this year, and L’Arche turns 55 in August. Today, we think of it as a success story. Vanier was a member of the Order of Canada and recipient of France’s Legion of Honour; schools are named after him.
As for my father, he returned home to Toronto to become a French teacher after that one summer with L’Arche, eventually marrying my mother, also a teacher. But he brought Vanier’s most enduring lesson home to us: a sense of purpose is powerful.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.