Investing in Justice for Institutional Survivors

By John Guido

This Mother’s Day was beautiful unlike the cold and damp of the past two years. We gathered in a parking lot around a handmade, replica coffin under a hand-stitched banner proclaiming, “Remember Every Name.” An Indigenous elder smudged the coffin and each of the 50 or 60 people there, connecting us to the sacred. Connecting us also to the Truth and Reconciliation process still unfolding for survivors of the residential schools and other harm done to the First Peoples of this land.

As a bagpiper played, we processed up the hill led by a dozen survivors of the institution for persons with intellectual disabilities that once operated on this hilltop outside the town of Orillia, Ontario. We gathered under the trees around a lawn that is interrupted by a few gravestones revealing its purpose. We gathered to remember those buried here, to listen to the painful memories of the survivors, to pray and sing in different faith traditions. We gathered to commit ourselves to never forget what happened in this place.


The yellow flags are for the known names of people buried at the Huronia cemetery. The green marks where a sewer line was run through the graves.


Across the lawn, small yellow flags, placed by the organizers of the Lost But Not Forgotten memorial, marked the names of people buried in known graves. Most of the graves here have no names, no birth or death dates, nothing but a short serial number on a small, flat stone. Years ago, many stones were stolen to pave a patio. At some point, a sewer line was run right through the graves. Even in death, there was no end to the indignities committed against the persons buried here.

These are the graves of the abandoned: men, women, and many children who were placed at Huronia Regional Centre never to return home. These sons and daughters, brothers and sisters lived, died, and were buried at HRC, often without a casket, a funeral, or anyone to mourn their loss. It’s a story of people being stripped of their dignity, their humanity, like something from a totalitarian society. But this happened in Ontario in living memory.

The serial numbers were intended to protect the dead from being identified. These centres are always justified by good intentions: to protect and care for our most vulnerable citizens, to relieve their parents of the burden of their care and their communities of the painful reminder of human frailty. Who would argue when doctors, priests, and ministers advised, “Your child will be better off there.” Unfortunately, reality didn’t match the good intentions.

Out of sight, congregated into overcrowded facilities, these vulnerable persons were neither safe nor well cared for. For many years, the institutions were called “Hospital Schools.” But they were hospitals where people were harmed not cured. And schools that taught children harsh lessons through control, deprivation, humiliation, and frequent abuse. One survivor, Patricia Seth, put it this way, “It was like living in a prison. The only thing is, we didn't know when we would even get out.”

An apology and the importance of remembering

In 2013, the government of Ontario was mandated in a court settlement to apologize to the men, women, and children forced to live in these provincially run institutions. Each of the party leaders spoke in a rare moment of unity and non-partisanship. In her thoughtful speech, Premier Kathleen Wynne said, “Their humanity was undermined; they were separated from their families and robbed of their potential, their comfort, safety, and their dignity.”

These words are a haunting parallel to the treatment of children in the residential schools (with important differences such as eradication of indigenous cultures and intergenerational impact). On CBC Radio’s The Current (March 2017), Senator Murray Sinclair, the chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, spoke about the importance of remembering the harm caused by government-funded institutions.

“We should never forget… because it's part of who we are. It's not just a part of who we are as survivors and children of survivors and relatives of survivors, it's part of who we are as a nation. And this nation must never forget what it once did to its most vulnerable people.”

A painful path to truth and reconciliation

The apology was mandated in the $35M settlement of the class action lawsuit brought by survivors of Huronia, Rideau, and Southwest Regional Centres. (A second lawsuit involved residents of 16 smaller facilities). Because of the settlement, there was no trial where survivors or their families could be heard. Unlike the residential schools, no Truth and Reconciliation process was mandated where stories could be told and the public educated about what happened to the residents of the institutions.


Sol Express listening to key litigants Patricia Seth and Marie Slark, and litigant guardians Jim and Marilyn Dolmage.


After a complex, often-painful claims process – where survivors or their families had to prove the degree of abuse and relive painful, often re-traumatizing memories – over $7M of the fund remained. The court designated these funds as the Strategic Program Investment Fund (SPI). Groups were invited to propose projects to benefit survivors, and 32 projects were chosen from the 80 submitted. The survivors and their allies named these projects, Investing in Justice, an indirect pathway to some measure of truth and reconciliation.

Reclaiming the Founding Story of L’Arche

L’Arche began when Jean Vanier welcomed Raphaël Simi, Philippe Seux, and other men who lived in institutions to share life with him. Philippe recalled, “Jean took me out of a centre where I had been placed by social workers. It had been desolate there. We were always inside, surrounded by four walls. There was nothing to do. We were bored stiff; there was no life. I even cried. When I came to L’Arche there was no electricity -we used candles for lighting. It was fun! There were no toilets or showers, but I felt like I was exploding with joy.”

For over 50 years, L’Arche communities have supported institutional survivors to come home. Over time, through relationships and sharing life in community as well as more formal therapies, these members have learned to trust, to discover their hopes and dreams, and to risk following them. Showing remarkable resilience, survivors have added new chapters to their life stories. These journeys, each unique, rarely easy, are woven into the very fabric of L’Arche.

Conscious of our story and the members of our communities who lived this journey, L’Arche Ontario felt called to participate in Investing in Justice. With the support of the Regional Council, two communities submitted or were part of five submissions that were accepted for funding.

Investing in Justice

L’Arche London is partnering with Participation House Support Services, Hutton House, and the London Arts Council in Healing through the Arts which honours the resiliency and spirit of survivors through six-week “open studios” where participants celebrate each other's gifts through arts activities drawn from their stories, experiences, and ideas in an atmosphere of conversation, encouragement, and freedom of expression.

L’Arche Toronto is steering three projects:

  • Listen to My Story: Supporting Institutional Survivors consists of formation sessions for people supporting survivors conducted by 3 institutional survivors and 3 siblings of former institutional residents. Resources will be developed including video recordings and workbooks.
  • Healing and Belonging is helping two survivors with more complex needs to continue to heal, increase their personal networks, and participate in the wider community in meaningful ways. Learning from these enriched supports will be shared to help others.
  • Birds Make Me Think About Freedom is a multimedia performance piece to teach people about the lives and strengths of survivors. “Survivor guides” are shaping the process of listening to the experience of survivors and family members. L’Arche Toronto’s Sol Express and their artist collaborators will present an initial version at the Toronto Fringe Festival this summer. It will then be further developed for future performances.


Birds Make Me Think About Freedom at the Toronto Fringe Festival. (Photo by Toinette Parisio)


L’Arche Toronto is also supporting Lost But Not Forgotten, the annual memorial for the people buried in the HRC cemetery in Orillia. The group, part of Remember Every Name, is also researching the cemetery seeking the truth about what happened there.

Steps to truth and reconciliation

These five projects are different yet interconnected. Each is part of the larger truth and reconciliation mosaic of the 32 Investing in Justice projects. L’Arche and its partners are contributing to truth and reconciliation by:

  • Creating safe spaces, rituals, and supports for survivors to speak if/how they so choose (with care not to re-traumatize);
  • Listening deeply to the voices and experience of survivors;
  • Being lead and guided by survivors in every aspect of the projects;
  • Providing opportunities for formal and informal healing and growth;
  • Creating tools, videos, and archives to share what we are learning; and
  • Sharing stories of the institutions and the resilience and gifts of the survivors in diverse, creative ways to educate the public and to advocate for full inclusion and belonging for all people, especially the most vulnerable.

We hope that being listened to in a safe and supportive environment, finding creative expression, and taking a lead in their communities will help survivors to continue to heal and live meaningful lives as they carry their experience.

We believe that these projects will help us remember what happened and what continues to happen in institutions when society separates vulnerable persons from their families, friends, and communities “for their own good.”

We are committed to educating people not only to prevent these abuses, but also to welcome and celebrate the unique gifts of persons with intellectual disabilities who have so much to contribute in shaping a more human society.

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.