As a young Canadian living in France, Jean Vanier was at the forefront of what gradually became the widely accepted movement to de-institutionalize people who had developmental disabilities.
Distressed by the scandalous conditions he saw in institutions, in 1964 Jean Vanier invited two men with developmental disabilities, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, to live with him in a small house in the French village of Trosly-Breuil. He named their house “L'Arche,” after Noah's Ark.
The three created home life together, sharing daily tasks and times of relaxation as would a family. Before long, Jean, Raphael and Philippe welcomed more men and women with developmental disabilities and many young assistants from various countries including Canada who wanted to help and to share in this unique experience of living in community.
As L'Arche grew, it opened other homes in the village and started small work projects and creative studios where fine hand-crafted items were made. When assistants returned to their home countries they carried the vision and mission of L'Arche with them. Thus these same simple beginnings have been replicated in many countries around the world.
Vanier very quickly discovered that the people whom he had befriended had much to give him and to teach him about life. This awareness of the mutuality of relationships and the humanizing contribution of people who have developmental disabilities--indeed the transformative experience of sharing life together-- is fundamental to L'Arche and is what continues to attract many of the assistants who come to L'Arche.
How L'Arche came to Canada
After spending a year in Trosly, Steve and Ann Newroth brought Jean Vanier's vision home with them. In 1969, with the gift of a large house and some property, the first community outside France opened in Canada. Bill Van Buren, a young man who needed a home, was the first to join the couple, and his arrival on October 16th of that year officially founded L'Arche Daybreak.
In the 70s L'Arche grew rapidly around the world. Canada was no exception. L'Arche communities opened in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. The International Federation of L'Arche communities formed during these years. L'Arche communities were grouped into “regions” for friendship and mutual support. The Charter of L'Arche was written, and standards for governance and the ensuring of L'Arche values and quality of life were put in place. L'Arche continues to grow as every year new communities are opened.
- L'Arche has nearly 200 homes and day settings in different L'Arche communities located across Canada, from Vancouver Island to Cape Breton.
- There are always new L'Arche communities being created in Canada.
- Each L'Arche community is composed of 2 to 8 homes and often, work settings and day programs integrated into local neighbourhoods where they are located.
- Some communities have a small spiritual centre.
- L'Arche is known and respected as an outstanding service-provider.
- Each L'Arche community has a network of friends and volunteers in the wider society.
- Many L'Arche communities give support to families who have people with disabilities at home.
- L'Arche has grown to an international federation of 130 communities. There are L'Arche communities in 30 countries on 6 continents.
- L'Arche contributes to the wider Canadian society through providing educational resources and publications that extend the values and social vision of Jean Vanier and help build a compassionate and inclusive social ethos.
Jean Vanier took as his inspiration the biblical passage from the Beatitudes that declares that the poor are “blessed.” L'Arche believes that every person is blessed with important gifts to offer to others and that we are called to create a society in which each one's gifts can be given and recognized. L'Arche communities reflect the cultural and religious make-up of the locales where they were founded. Thus, while in France L'Arche drew largely from a Roman Catholic population, Canadian community have welcomed people of various Christian denominations and also sometimes people of Jewish, Muslim or other faiths as well as people with no faith affiliation.
Each L'Arche community is incorporated provincially as a not-for-profit oragnizaton with its own Board of Directors. Each is approved and partially funded by Provincial Ministries of Social Services to provide services for people with a developmental disability. L'Arche communities in Canada are members of an Association, L'Arche Canada, which is also a not-for-profit corporation. The L'Arche Canada Foundation is the fundraising wing of L'Arche Canada.