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A hero passed away

In this week’s column, Bill mourns the loss of a personal hero, Jean Vanier

Bill Fox

Bill Fox

By Bill Fox/Columnist

One of my heroes is Jean Vanier, who was a Canadian philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian.

In 1964, Vanier founded L’Arche, an international federation of communities, for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. Up to that point, society placed developmentally disabled people in institutions.

I believe it was Vanier’s influence that brought “inclusion” into our schools where all disabled youth were included in our education systems.

Vanier, during one of his many lectures touched on his distaste for barriers around people with intellectual disabilities, a motivating philosophy behind L’Arche.

“We must do what we can to diminish walls, to meet each other. Why do we put people with disabilities behind walls?”

Jean went on to establish 147 L’Arche communities in 37 countries around the world.

Daybreak on Yonge St. in Richmond Hill is one such home. It was there, back in 1972, that I first met my wife at one of their Friday night “Coffee Houses.”

Members of the public were encouraged to come to their coffee houses to dance, sing and interact with the residents.

I guess, at the time, as a young teacher, I was very conscious of my appearance and my demeanor and was somewhat taken aback by a young woman’s antics on the dance floor. I honestly thought that she might be a resident, until I actually talked to her. That evening was a huge turning point in my life.

Vanier was the son of Canadian parents, Major-General Georges Vanier, who became the 19th Governor General of Canada (1959–1967), and his wife, Pauline.

There are many schools named after Jean’s dad, including General Vanier Secondary right here in Oshawa. The Vanier Cup is also named after Jean’s dad and is given to the champions of Canadian university football.

Jean trained for a career as a naval officer at the Dartmouth Naval College, and served in World War II with the Royal Canadian Navy.

In 1950, feeling a strong inner spiritual calling to do “something else,” he resigned his naval commission.

Vanier traveled to Paris to study. He eventually went on to complete a PhD and taught philosophy at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto.

He left in 1964, seeking a more spiritual ministry and it was then that he became aware of the plight of thousands of people institutionalized with developmental disabilities.

Vanier invited two men, Raphael and Philippe, to leave the institutions where they resided and live with him in Trosly-Breuil, France. Their time together led to the establishment of L’Arche, a community where people with disabilities live with those who care for them. Vanier’s belief was that people with disabilities can be teachers, rather than burdens bestowed upon families

Until the late 1990s, Vanier carried the responsibility for L’Arche in Trosly-Breuil in France. He stepped down to spend more time counselling, encouraging, and accompanying the people who came to live in L’Arche as assistants to those with disabilities.

Over the years Vanier wrote 30 books on religion, disability, success, and tolerance. Among the honours he received were the Companion of the Order of Canada (1986), Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec (1992), French Legion of Honour (2003), etc.

There are now many schools across Canada named after Vanier, including Jean Vanier Catholic Secondary School in Scarborough.

Vanier continued to live in the original L’Arche community of Trosly-Breuil, France, until his death. He continued to travel widely, visiting other L’Arche communities, encouraging projects for new communities and giving lectures and retreats.

My wife and I were privileged to attend several of his lectures and retreats over the years. I recall him mentioning how he had given a retreat to Ontario Judges. At one point he asked them how many had actually visited a jail and not one hand went up. There was a lesson there. Another comment I will never forget was when he mentioned that while it might be easy to join a protest against the Vietnam War, be sure you don’t have your own Vietnam War in your own home.

Vanier died on May 7. A week before his death, Pope Francis called Vanier to personally thank him for his years of ministry and service. I’m at “” if you have any Vanier stories to share.