Birds Make Me Think About Freedom

By John Guido

As Birds Make Me Think About Freedom begins, the cast comes onstage. An actor says, “Our play is a journey that takes us to some dark places… but we don’t stay there.” Then he invites the audience to join the company, half of whom have intellectual disabilities, in a simple centering exercise. For most of us, this is theatre unlike anything we’ve seen before, a work of creativity, gentleness, and compassion that invites the audience to come along on a journey that will engage us on every level.

In the words of the creative team, “Birds Make Me Think About Freedom is inspired by the stories of persons institutionalized for having intellectual disabilities, their families, and friends. Institutional survivors have guided the company’s creative process. Following their lead, this production reflects on their stories in song, projections, poetry, and dance. We journey through moments of connection and separation. We go behind the walls of the institution exposing the truth, challenging the system, and honouring all who have gone before us. We hear stories of strength and wisdom. We reflect on freedom ending with a dance of reconnection, a weaving of difference into a colourful whole, a nest of mutual support and interdependence.”

This extraordinary work was created by:

  • L’Arche Toronto’s Sol Express, an innovative creative and performing arts program that focuses on developing the talents and skills of artists with intellectual disabilities, with
  • Victoria Freeman, a public historian, multidisciplinary artist/writer, educator and the author of Distant Relations and A World Without Martha, about Victoria’s sister, Martha, who lived at Rideau for 13 years and whose story Victoria shares in the play.

They collaborated with Jumblies Theatre, a local company with national reach, that “makes art in everyday and extraordinary places with, for, and about the people and stories found there.” I’m happy to disclose my bias as I have a support role supervising L’Arche Toronto projects funded by Investing in Justice.

A brief history of this production

After the success of their show, Seasons, at the 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival, Sol Express was invited to return. Birds Make Me Think About Freedom debuted at the 2018 Toronto Fringe Festival where it had a successful run and won Patron’s Pick. One online reviewer wrote, “The play is performed with grace and beauty, and it tells us much about resilience.” (Mooney on Theatre) A reviewer for Now magazine wrote, “Using dance, music and multimedia components, the show skillfully demonstrates the varied ways that the institutionalization movement has impacted the lives of disabled people… Each vignette is powerful, including a somber memorial scene for those who did not survive the institutions, a video interview on freedom, and an exquisite fabric dance.”

The Fringe debuted a work in progress. Afterwards, the collaborators reflected on the wholly positive and constructive feedback from reviewers and a survey of audience members and performers. As they looked at ways to further develop the play, they were encouraged by the feedback of three groups: survivors who were grateful for a truthful reflection of their experience, audience members who learned about institutions for the first time, and performers with disabilities who spoke about the importance of ensuring that these stories are told.

Work on strengthening the production was made possible by remaining Investing in Justice funds and a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts Explore and Create fund. An invitation by the organizers of Flying to Freedom set the date of the next iteration of the show to March 19, 2019, as part of this commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the closure of the institutions in Ontario.

For those of us who saw the play at the fringe, it’s clear that changes made to this new version, both minor tweaks and significant additions, strengthened its impact and narrative clarity. In particular, stories about persons from indigenous communities who were institutionalized added both powerful reflections on healing, friendship, and resilience, and a link to the horror of the Residential Schools that have so many parallels. The audience of survivors, and their family members, friends, and allies responded enthusiastically. One survivor was heard to say, “How did they get it right?”

Rooted in respectful listening

The subject of Birds Make Me Think About Freedom is one of the darkest chapters in human history, the development of institutions for persons labeled with what we now call intellectual disability. In words from the court-ordered Apology made by then-premier Kathleen Wynne read in the play, “… these men, women, and children and their families were deeply harmed and continue to bear the scars and the consequences of this time. Their humanity was undermined; they were separated from their families, and robbed of their potential, their comfort, their safety, and their dignity.” This terrible harm was done by the province in the name of what was “good” for the child, their family, and the community.

The title comes from the words of a long-term member of L’Arche Toronto who survived 20 years in an institution. He said, “Birds make me think about freedom. They go where they want and don’t have to think about it. It’s a gift in itself because it’s something that doesn’t come overnight. You have to work on it. It’s just there. Like a light.”

His reflection pointed out the importance of the journey of survivors to healing and freedom – even if the road is slow and hard. He and another survivor (neither wishes to be identified) acted as “survivor guides” for the creative team helping them listen to survivors and make choices about what to show on stage.

Listening to the survivor guides led the team to seek guidance from trauma specialists to ensure that the storytelling sessions were safe spaces. They practiced compassion and being gentle with one another. They created rituals, grounding exercises, and circles for sharing their thoughts and feelings. The performers with disabilities responded to the stories with empathy. One said, “That’s sad.” And another, “This could have happened to me.” They listened to many hard stories, yet also to stories of how survivors healed, began to trust people again, discovered their value and made choices for the life they desired. They were moved by the deep wisdom of lived experience of survivors as they grew in freedom.

Community creating theatre creating community

Community theatre is created by, with, and for a community as a means of engaging issues, promoting action, and building social cohesion. Sol Express embodies these values and practices, working to explore how its members with and without disabilities engage different themes through movement, voice, music, visual art, and various theatrical traditions. Their work showcases the gifts and abilities of the performers – and the program leaders – and expresses diverse ways of knowing and seeing the world.

Community Theatre is by design highly collaborative. Sol Express partnered with Victoria who is a researcher, writer, and performer. They collaborated with Jumblies Theatre which has roots in “the British “Community Play”, a form that combines theatre on an epic scale with a philosophy of wholehearted social inclusion and an astonishing capacity for social change.”

Birds Make Me Think About Freedom flows from this tradition. The way the show is told – through diverse creative expression with a diverse cast – witnesses to the power of creating vibrant, inclusive community. The strongest argument against marginalizing people is welcoming them to centre stage, putting a spotlight on their extraordinary gifts and contributions.

For Sol Express, a key moment in the creative process was working together to write the Haiku that ends the play,

Beat strong and steady.
Our hearts and wings together.
Fly with other birds.

They wrote, “These words name our desire for a future where we live together in a world that celebrates difference and interdependence, where each person is valued and belongs.”

This is a message for all of us. If you have the opportunity to see Birds Make Me Think About Freedom, you will face both the worst and the best of what it means to be human. You’ll also see a powerful, imperfect, and hopeful realization of this vision of a more human future.


Nomination of Jeff Gilbreath as Ontario Regional Leader

The Mandate and Selection Committee for the Ontario Region, chaired by Jenn Power, is at the end of its mission. The committee unanimously recommended the appointment of Jeff Gilbreath as Regional Leader for the next 4 years, a recommendation that I confirmed, and that Jeff enthusiastically accepted.

Announcement - L'Arche North Bay

L’Arche Canada acknowledges with sadness that the L’Arche North Bay Board of Directors has determined that the current state of L’Arche North Bay is unsustainable and not viable into the future. As a result of this decision, the Board has resolved to cease operations and dissolve the corporation.

Presenting Michael McDonald, new Communications Coordinator for L’Arche Canada

We are very pleased to announce that after a thorough search, interview and selection process, Michael McDonald has been hired as the Communications Coordinator for L’Arche Canada.

Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act, receives Royal Assent

The Accessible Canada Act is now law. The government and the disabilities community have lots to do together to make it effective.

Celebrate the Gift gathering

Celebrate the Gift, August 5-9, 2019, promises to be an amazing gathering to learn together, celebrate, and create friendships and community.

Jean Vanier Research Centre at King’s University College UWO

King’s University College at Western University has announced the creation of the new Jean Vanier Research Centre under the direction of our good friend, Dr Pamela Cushing.

Announcing a major investment in L’Arche Canada

The Social Development Partnerships Program – Disability Issues – Grant

Program on the abuse of religious women in the Church airs in Canada

L’Arche Canada reiterates our deep compassion for the victims of abuse and our commitment to a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment and abuse.

L’Arche Greater Vancouver launches ‘We All Belong’ campaign

The $30 million project to build a fully-accessible, three-story building is the organization’s most ambitious dream in its 45-year history.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities visits Canada

Ms Devandas Aguilar was invited by the Government of Canada and visited 5 cities across Canada looking at themes related to the articles of the CRPD.

Jordan Hart introduces “L’Arche Sundays” to his 100-day busking challenge

“I have never learned how to love more purely and profoundly than through people with intellectual disabilities.”

Dr Pamela Cushing, friend of L’Arche, to receive Tanis Doe Award

This award honours an individual who dares to “speak the unspeakable” in advancing the study and culture of disability, and who has enriched through research, teaching, or activism the lives of Canadians with disabilities.

Accidental Friends: Stories from My Life in Community

This book by Beth Porter, long-time member of L’Arche Daybreak, will be available soon in North America.

Families in Canada Conference 2019

The Vanier Institute of the Family held the Families in Canada Conference 2019, gathering leaders to deepen understanding of family diversity, expedite research to practise and enhance family well-being.

Commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the Closure of the Institutions in Ontario

Flying to Freedom was presented by institutional survivors, People First of Ontario, the Council of Community Living Ontario, Community Living Ontario, the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, and L’Arche Toronto.

Zoom Media produces the official video for the Quebec week of intellectual disabilities 2019

It was Zoom Media’s inclusive team that prepared the content, filmed the video clip and edited it, accompanied by the Approprimage team.

Conference on love and inclusion

L’Arche Agapè will host a public conference on inclusion at the Université du Québec en Outaouais on March 21, 2019.

Federal Budget continues Ready, Willing, and Able Across Canada

“This investment allows RWA to continue working toward the vision of an inclusive and effective labour market with an employment rate for people with intellectual disabilities and ASD on par with the national average.”

Québec Recruitment Campaign

New recruitment video online!

BROKEN: Institutions, Families, and the Construction Intellectual Disability

A new book by Madeline Burghardt, long-time member and former assistant of L’Arche Toronto and L’Arche Daybreak.

Mon Ami Gil returns!

Following the success of Mon Ami Gil in the spring of 2018, a new series of short videos will delve more deeply into the story of Gil Frois – how he came to be the man he is today, sharing his life and gifts within L’Arche Agapè in Gatineau, QC, and in the other places where he belongs in the wider community.

Michael McDonald Speaking Tour

In four L’Arche communities in Alberta and Saskatchewan in the next two weeks

Bringing the VPS into 2019

From the Vulnerable Persons Secretariat

L’Arche Tova Café in the News

L’Arche Tova Café is featured in a review of 27 cafes that are social purpose businesses employing persons with disabilities across Canada.

L’Arche Beloeil becomes L’Arche Montérégie

On December 10, L’Arche Beloeil announced that it was becoming L’Arche Montérégie. The choice to make this big change was made to educate people across the region about their cause.

Measuring the Impact of Federal Legislation to Promote Inclusion

On December 3, the International Day of Person with Disabilities, L’Arche Canada participated in the 9th annual Federal Policy Forum on Inclusion hosted by the Canadian Association of Community Living and People First of Canada.

Canada accedes to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Accession to the Optional Protocol means that Canadians will have additional recourse to make a complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, if they believe their rights under the Convention have been violated.

I Believe in You

“This book brings something new and surprising (...) I hope each reader can discover in a new way what it means to be human.” – Jean Vanier, from the foreword

Accessible Canada Act passed third reading

L’Arche Canada has joined the Federal Accessibility Legislation Alliance (FALA) and supports its recommended changes.

Le Sacrement de la Tendresse (the Sacrament of Tenderness) a new film about Jean Vanier

One of the film’s assets is the enthusiasm of the director, whose strength of conviction is real.

Letter from Jean, October 2018

“90 years old! My God, I can scarcely believe it. I have such a desire to shout out my thanks!”

Louis Pilotte, new National Leader

“From my very first days in L’Arche, I was convinced that I was living an experience that was part of a project for society, part of a vision of the world.”

New Community Leaders in Saint John and Wolfville

… and celebrating Homefires Community Leader Ingrid Blais

Second Reading for Accessible Canada Act

The Accessible Canada Act (ACA) legislation to ensure a barrier-free Canada

L’Arche Canada Foundation’s Fall 2018 Impact Bulletin

Top Story: Support for L’Arche Lithuania

Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying Regulations Fall Short

September 6, 2018 – L’Arche Canada supports the Canadian Association for Community Living (CACL) and the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) in urging the federal government to strengthen the system of monitoring Medical Assistance in Dying.

A new Community Leader for L’Arche Daybreak

L’Arche Canada and the Board of Directors present Trish Glennon, as the new Community Leader for L’Arche Daybreak

L’Arche Saskatoon’s 10th Anniversary video is amazing!

To celebrate their first ten years, L’Arche Saskatoon produced a wonderful 8-min video on “What is community?”

Third Interim Report on Medical Assistance in Dying in Canada

The Government of Canada has released the third Interim Report on Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) in Canada (July 1 to December 31, 2017)

Minister Duncan introduces the proposed Accessible Canada Act

June 20, 2018 – This historic legislation would enable the Government of Canada to take a proactive approach to end systemic discrimination of people with disabilities.

L’Arche Canada Newsletter Summer 2018

“Community is built as we become interdependent, humbly recognizing and welcoming our need of one another.”

Letter from Jean, May 2018

“Every day, I take a walk in my little garden, with my eyes looking down because I have to be careful where I walk: this means I notice the primroses.”

L’Arche Canada Foundation’s Spring 2018 Impact Bulletin

Top Story: L’Arche Toronto’s Trying It On For Size (TIFS) project for young people with intellectual disabilities

Summer in the Forest is coming to Canada

“Summer in the Forest is an extraordinarily tender documentary that asks what it means to be human. Here, even the most gentle scenes raise mighty questions.” (New York Times)

The Courage to Listen and Speak Out

As part of the campaign on fundamental values, the L’Arche Canada communications team recently published an online, illustrated account of a person who has lived through abuse. In very simple words, the account expresses a universal reality, the truth that not being heard is a source of immense suffering.

Jean Vanier Interview on CNN

Christiane Amanpour interviews Jean Vanier following the release of Summer in the Forest

First Nations – The Courage to Meet Face to Face

At L’Arche, we are all experimenting with what it means to find “the courage to truly meet difference.” We are on this journey whether we’re encountering a new person, or group, or any culture other than our own.

“Nineteen Paper Cranes”, a Film in Homage to the victims of Sagamihara, Japan

L’Arche International is launching the 9th film in its #AsIAm web series, filmed at L’Arche in Japan, in homage to the 19 victims of the Sagamihara massacre.

Growing as we Learn: The L’Arche Canada Growth Initiative

“A learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.” – Harvard Business Review

Leadership Spring Trainings take off

The L’Arche Canada leadership development has entered a major new phase. After years introducing a model based on the core values of L’Arche and tools for reviews and team building, a comprehensive formation and training program – through over 100 online training modules – is being delivered across the country.

Communicating the Work of Outreach and Communications

It has been a challenging year of transition in the L’Arche Canada Outreach and Communications team and its work. As we move forward, new initiatives and new partnerships are emerging that promise increased impact in this important work.

Contributing Our Voices

On February 8, members of L’Arche attended an “in person” session of the accessibility consultation, as several L’Arche folk from other communities had done in their cities.

Meeting with the Minister

On April 6, 2017, representatives of L’Arche Canada met with the Hon. Qualtrough, Minister of Sports and Persons with Disabilities, to share our hopes and concerns – and express our gratitude and support – for new federal, accessibility legislation.

Revelations of Abuse in Trosly, France

In a letter dated March 24, 2015, the Leaders of L’Arche International informed the communities of L’Arche around the world of the results of a canonical (Church) inquiry into accounts of sexual abuse by Père Thomas Philippe who was involved in the beginnings of the first community of L’Arche in Trosly. (Père Thomas died in 1993 so there was no trial.)

Love at Second Sight

AboutFace, an organization providing supports to individuals with facial differences and their families, as well as public awareness and education to increase understanding and acceptance, recently hosted the Toronto premiere of this powerful film that transforms attitudes about appearance and encourages students to accept themselves and others. It’s about difference and belonging, judgment and inclusion.

What does an Accessible Canada mean to you?

The Government of Canada has launched a consultation process that will be open until February 2017. Canadians are encouraged to participate in the consultation by visiting:

L’Arche Canada response to Bill C-14’s

In response to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Physician-Assisted Dying, and as the Federal Government works on drafting legislation on this issue, L’Arche in Canada has re-committed itself to providing the best possible supports for the people with intellectual disabilities in our communities, both in life and as they approach death.

Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart

An excellent new book on Jean Vanier by Michael W. Higgins is available from Novalis.