The important work of the Vanier Institute of the Family is a call to L’Arche

By John Guido

On March 27 and 28, 2019, five of us from L’Arche attended the Vanier Institute of the Family “Families in Canada” conference. At first, I wasn’t sure why we were there. The conference theme was “THINK BIG: How can we use “Big Data” to inform and inspire big ideas to optimize family well-being in Canada?” I was fully on board with L’Arche developing our capacity for the better use of data (both numbers and stories) as we seek to increase our impact in Canadian society. We’ll write more about that another time.

My question was about how L’Arche might play a role in optimizing “family well-being.” While families have always been part of the life of our communities and our biggest supporters, we rarely identify them as a ‘primary beneficiary’ except when we provide supports to their family member. Today, L’Arche’s relationship with families is changing as we support more persons with disabilities living with their families and welcome them and their family members into our community life. However, the question remains: Should we focus more on the wellbeing of families, listening to and reflecting with them?

Is L’Arche a new kind of family?

My questioning went another direction as the conference focused on the outcomes of the Families in Canada Listening Tour. A photo was projected, and I was delighted to see some of my friends from L’Arche Ottawa in their community centre. On the Vanier Institute’s website, they summarize what they shared about the photo:

“In June 2014, the Vanier Institute of the Family launched the national Families in Canada Listening Tour at L’Arche Ottawa, a cousin organization founded by Jean Vanier – son of Vanier Institute founders General The Right Honourable Georges P. Vanier and Madame Pauline Vanier. Attended by Her Excellency Sharon Johnston, it was a special milestone for L’Arche and the Vanier Institute, both celebrating 50 years of service. Members of L’Arche discussed their experiences in their families of origin as well as those they have created at L’Arche, a home for people with intellectual disabilities. L’Arche provides an opportunity for these adults to live independently and participate in daily life activities together in a familial setting. The event was informative, insightful and inspirational, foreshadowing the success of the Listening Tour.

The Vanier Institute’s understanding is that those of us in L’Arche belong both to families of origin and to our L’Arche families. “Our definition of family is deliberately broad to ensure that it captures all families and family experiences. It is a functional definition of family that focuses on relationships and roles – what families do, not what they look like.”

Minister Duclos

In his opening remarks to the conference, the Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children, and Social Development captured the core of what families do, “The Vanier Institute’s 2015–2016 listening tour asked people to complete the phrase “Family is…” and the answers were overwhelmingly:

  • Family is Love;
  • Family is Care; and
  • Family is Support.

The Government of Canada is committed to ensuring people can love without labels, get care when needed and support one another at home, at work and in their communities.”

Some people might say that love, mutual care and support are what L’Arche does. Many people welcomed by L’Arche especially in the early years suffered the rejection of institutionalization or breakage with their family of origin for other reasons. They often say, “L’Arche is my family.” For these men and women, this may be their reality – L’Arche is the first or only family that they have known.

A special meal in L’Arche Saint John

As we move away from that painful era, the number of people in L’Arche without strong ties to their families of origin is decreasing significantly. Yet for many of us, there remains a strong identification with L’Arche as a “second family.” We have ties that bind us deeply to other members, an experience of belonging to each other. We often act like an extended family during daily meals, at the bedside in hospital, and in life celebrations such as birthdays, weddings, and funerals.

The problems of identifying L’Arche as a family

Despite these deep experiences of L’Arche as a family, there are problems with this identity. These are some of the issues that I’ve seen in three decades of lived experience:

  • When we idealize family life, we will be disappointed on a regular basis because there is no place where people love perfectly.
  • The family system gives primary power to the roles of father and mother which can be problematic if we replicate them unaware of the potential for abuse of power, or if we paper over experiences of poor boundaries, disrespect, harassment, and abuse.
  • This concept may depend on persons with disabilities to be the children, especially if they have higher or increasing needs for support that make them more dependent.
  • A family system often puts individuals into narrow roles and doesn’t always give them the room and support to take risks to explore, experiment, and break free.
  • We can be too comfortable in our own home, too closed in ourselves, and afraid to be involved in the messy life of the wider community where people have different ways of seeing and doing things that might challenge us.
  • L’Arche communities have dual identities of the community (that we may experience like a family) and the agency, the not for profit service provider funded and regulated by governments and accountable to a variety of stakeholders.
  • This dual identity impacts us in many ways: turnover of assistants with a constant cycle of welcoming-forming-sending-grieving; lack of time and energy for assistants to ‘just be with’ their housemates and to focus on their own growth; inconsistent commitment to retired assistants, etc.

Like a family, L’Arche will never be perfect, but we must never use that as an excuse to tolerate behaviour that is controlling, conforming, closed in, or causes harm to vulnerable members. L’Arche is called to be a community where we develop strong bonds with safety, respect, and openness to growth, change, and the world around us.

From questions to a Call to Action

It’s clear that L’Arche isn’t a family – although it may substitute for family for people in need. And there are dangers in conceiving of L’Arche as a family without reflecting on what that implies and creating safe boundaries. Yet there is something about belonging in a community where I’m known and loved, where I’m deeply committed to the growth of others and they to me, which is like a family, either the family we know or the family we’ve been searching for.

Reconnecting to the Vanier Institute of the Family at Families in Canada 2019 is important for L’Arche in Canada. L’Arche has a profound lived experience walking with persons with intellectual disabilities and often with their families for 50 years. We need to explore where we’re being called to learn with and contribute more to the wellbeing of these families.

There is also a call to explore more deeply – with the Vanier Institute of the family and other partners in building vibrant communities – the ways in which communities are like and not like families; how we need both family and community to thrive; and how these primary spaces of belonging can support and challenge each other. L’Arche has a lot to learn yet much to offer as we build a society where each person, each family, and each community is healthy, valued, and contributing their gifts and abilities for the good of all.


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.