Jean Vanier, Canadian champion of the developmentally disabled, dead at 90

Jean Vanier, whose charity work helped improve conditions for the developmentally disabled in Canada and multiple other countries over the past half-century, has died at 90.

'His family is everywhere now,' says top L'Arche official of Vanier's legacy

Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together, is shown March 11, 2015, when he was awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

Jean Vanier, whose charity work helped improve conditions for the developmentally disabled in Canada and multiple other countries over the past half-century, has died at 90.

A charity he founded, L'Arche, 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.

Pope Francis was informed of Vanier's death and is praying for him and the community, according to Vatican spokesperson Alessandro Gisotti.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid tribute on social media, saying Vanier "made it his life's work to help the most vulnerable, and give everyone a real and fair chance at success."

"He made our world a better, more inclusive place through [L'Arche], and his legacy will continue to inspire us all," said Trudeau.

A visit to a psychiatric hospital prompted him to found L'Arche in 1964 as an alternative living environment where those with developmental disabilities could be full-fledged participants in the community instead of patients.

Jean Vanier opens first L'Arche house

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Vanier told CBC News at the time that in a world getting more complex and indifferent, it was important that someone give the developmentally disabled a voice.

"What you'll discover with the mentally deficient, is though they're deficient mentally, they're not at all deficient cordially — their hearts — and they're not deficient spiritually," he said.

Vanier praised those in his community for their ability to communicate without airs or motives.

"They make you discover what … love and tenderness and mercy and purity really are," he said.

The first Canadian community, L'Arche Daybreak, was founded in Richmond Hill, Ont., and now 29 communities are spread across Canada from Comox Valley, B.C., to Cape Breton, N.S.

Worldwide, there are 154 residential communities in 38 countries on five continents.

"He saw people locked up, and he decided to make a gesture, inspired by the Bible," said Pierre Jacquand, who leads L'Arche's facilities in France. "He felt a calling to defend the most marginalized."

"He gave them a voice," Jacquand said, adding that over time, his work helped inspire broader change in how France addresses the needs of those with developmental disorders, including Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorders.

International honours

He also travelled the world to encourage dialogue across religions, and was awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize for spiritual work, as well as France's Legion of Honor. He was the subject of a documentary shown at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival called Jean Vanier, the Sacrament of Tenderness.

"Before being Christians or Jews or Muslims, before being Americans or Russians or Africans, before being generals or priests, rabbis or imams, before having visible or invisible disabilities, we are all human beings with hearts capable of loving," Vanier said in remarks prepared for the Templeton Prize announcement in London.

Jean Vanier stands outside his home in Trosly-Breuil, France in March 2015. (Tom Heneghan/Reuters)

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

He had no direct descendants but left a legacy in many countries, and "his family is everywhere now," Jacquand said.

Vanier was born in Geneva, the fourth of five children.

He received a broad education in English and French, earning a doctorate in philosophy, and living in England, France and Canada.

'Are we prepared to care?'

In a 2006 talk at Concordia University in Montreal, Vanier argued that the Western culture of individualism which values beauty, money and success, also creates a gap between the healthy and the disabled.

"We have a fear of accompanying people who are weak …. They are seen as a financial and social liability," he said.

"We see the leprosy but not the person … We want to cure, but are we prepared to care?"

Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier on their humanitarian work

52 years ago
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Man Alive presents an interview with two humanitarians, Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier.

He argued that the greatest threat to peace is a widening gap between rich and poor, between strong and weak. But rather than urging people to open their wallets to the less fortunate, Vanier asked them to open their hearts.

"It's not a question of doing something, but of recognizing that each person has a gift to give."

Vanier said the responsibility for peace lies squarely with people, not with governments. Conflict, he told the Concordia audience, is a product of the walls we erect to protect ourselves.

"We want money, power, to walk up the ladder of privilege," Vanier said. "But where are we prepared to meet those with no power, money or privilege?"

A private memorial service is expected next week.

Public figures in Canada and internationally praised Vanier and expressed their condolences on social media or in statements.

"Saddened to hear this morning of the passing of Jean Vanier, founder of l'Arche, and a Canadian hero who did so much for people with disabilities," said Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May called him "an extraordinary human being, a saint among us."

Former Liberal leader Bob Rae said Vanier was "generous in spirit, and in sharing his friendship, inspiration, and vision."

Independent MP Jane Philpott, Ontario Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, and several federal and provincial legislators also honoured Vanier's legacy in posts.

The top official in the Anglican Church, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, said, "Vanier's vision, teachings and example were a powerful reminder that we are called to something infinitely more precious."

The French mission to the United Nations said Vanier's "commitment to helping others is a source of inspiration for us all."

With files from CBC News