Books

Jean Vanier, award-winning Canadian humanitarian, dead at 90

The founder of L'Arche, an international network of communities where those with and without disabilities live side-by-side, wrote about his philosophy and life in several books.
Jean Vanier, pictured above at a news conference in central London on May 11, 2015, has died at the age of 90. (Lefteris Pitarakis/The Associated Press)

Jean Vanier, an award-winning Canadian humanitarian whose work helped improve conditions for people with developmental disabilities around the world, has died at the age of 90.

L'Arche, the charity he founded in France in 1964, said Vanier died Tuesday in Paris after suffering from thyroid cancer.

Vanier, son of former governor general Georges P. Vanier, worked as a Canadian navy officer and professor before turning to Catholic-inspired charity work.

He wrote about his philosophy and life in several books, including Life's Great Questions, Becoming Human, Community and Growth, Befriending the Stranger, Our Life Together and From Brokenness to Community.

L'Arche began after a visit to a French psychiatric hospital where Vanier found the living conditions to be poor for patients. He ended up inviting two men to live with him in a small house in hopes of creating an alternative living environment for those with developmental disabilities.

L'Arche now maintains 154 residential communities in 38 countries where people with and without disabilities live and work side-by-side as equal participants.

Reflecting back on the founding of L'Arche, Vanier told Shelagh Rogers that he had no idea what it would become.

"I am somebody who does something because I feel it's right, but there's no plan. It's just that it's right and it's what I will do," said Vanier, speaking to Rogers on CBC Radio in 2009.

"What I discover today and what I discovered when I started living with people with disabilities is their fundamental cry was not for power, not for knowledge, not for money, but for relationship. The essential was, 'Do you love me?' That 'Do you love me?' is not something emotional, it's 'Do you see in me, somebody of value? Am I a person?'"

From the TNC Vault 23:32

Vanier handed over leadership of L'Arche decades ago but continued to live in the first community centre he founded in Trosly-Breuil, France, north of Paris.

"In my home," Vanier said to Rogers, "they say now that I'm over 70 I don't have to do the washing up. When I look tired, they say, 'You should go to bed.' After lunch, they say, 'You should go do your siesta.' All these people I was responsible for at one moment, now they're all responsible for me. There's something about discovering that to be weak is super, as long as you have community."

Vanier was recognized throughout his life with the French Legion of Honour, Companion of the Order of Canada and the Templeton Prize. He was the subject of the documentary Jean Vanier, the Sacrament of Tenderness.

With files from CBC Books.

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