Jean Vanier’s name has been attached to schools, books and institutions across Canada and the world. Wikipedia

Cutting Vanier ties a daunting task

By 
  • March 5, 2020

The fall from grace of Jean Vanier is leaving school boards, universities, publishers and even his beloved L’Arche organization in a bind.

While there can be no argument about all the good Vanier had done over a lifetime, his legacy is in shambles in the wake of a L’Arche report that its founder engaged in manipulative sexual relations with six women over a 35-year period.

Joseph Sinasac was shocked when he heard the news. After all, Vanier was one of the true good guys in this world.

“People thought of him as a living saint,” said Sinasac, publishing director at Novalis Publishing. “If anyone was going to fall down, it was not going to be him.”

Now, after the findings of an investigation into Vanier’s actions was released in late February, people are taking a step back and re-examining their thoughts of and relationship with Vanier. Novalis has pulled the sale of the six Vanier books it has published and will remove these from its marketing catalogues, though “we’re not putting them out of print just yet.”

“I’m still trying to get a handle on where this is going. There’s a big debate about this in one way. You can’t erase his legacy. He existed, he had a long life, he did some amazing work,” said Sinasac, before adding, “This is not to excuse what he did.”

It’s something many of the organizations that have some relationship with Vanier are up against. School boards across Canada have schools named after Vanier and his legacy is enshrined in curriculum, where students learn of Vanier’s founding of L’Arche in France in 1964 and its vision of inclusion and belonging to make for a better world. It won’t be long before demands come for school boards to erase anything that bears Vanier’s name.

Trustees at the French-language Grandes Rivieres school board have already declared they will change the name of its Kirkland Lake, Ont., school named after the Swiss-born, Canadian philosopher. Others are taking the same action under consideration.

The York Catholic District School Board north of Toronto has already begun the conversation. At its Feb. 25 board meeting, “trustees unanimously supported enacting the procedure to consider a name change,” the board said in a statement to The Catholic Register. “This procedure will include seeking input from the local parish, parents, students and staff before a short list of possible names will be brought to the board of trustees for consideration.”

Shazia Vlahos, senior manager of communications with the Toronto Catholic District School Board, said in a statement the board hasn’t gone to that point but is continuing to “digest this information and the impact these findings may have on our students, staff and school communities.”

“Given that there are references to Jean Vanier in curriculum resources we have asked that school administrators continue to use their professional judgment when selecting resources and being responsive to students’ needs,” Vlahos said in a statement.

Pat Daly is director of education at the Halton Catholic District School Board and a former principal of the high school that carries the Vanier name. He said the board has already received questions about a possible name change at the school.

“At this point it is too soon to know whether a decision will be made to change the school name,” Daly said in a statement on the board website. “There are a number of considerations that will need to be explored, and conversations to be held at both the school and board levels.”

The board of directors of the Jean Vanier Research Centre at King’s College at Western University in London, Ont., met Feb. 29 to discuss the issue. No decision had been released by press time.

One way or another, the centre — whose mandate is “to create opportunities for research and critical analysis” of Vanier’s ideas and work — will continue, said King’s principal David Malloy.

“The research centre, regardless of its name, will continue as a research centre,” said Malloy. “We’ll continue our scholarship. It’s part of our disability studies program which we fully support and we’ll push forward.”

Elsewhere, other institutions have been swift in reacting to the news. The University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., has already revoked the Notre Dame Award conferred upon Vanier in 1994, and the university’s Kellogg Institute revoked its 2014 Ford Family Notre Dame Award. Vanier has been honoured with dozens of honorary degrees and awards, including the Templeton Prize and the Pacem in Terris Award. He is a companion of the Order of Canada and received the Order of Quebec. There’s no word on whether these honours will be revoked.

Down the road, Sinasac said any decision Novalis makes will be a moral one rather than from a business perspective. Vanier’s books are perennial best-sellers and plenty of them remain in stock. There’s no doubt Novalis will lose some revenue should these books be permanently shelved, but Sinasac said that won’t influence the final decision.

“We have to decide what’s the right thing to do about this,” he said.

The impact on the six victims played a huge role in Novalis’ decision to pull Vanier’s work.

“The challenge with his books and being out there is we felt that at this stage to have them out there with the messages they contain would be insensitive to the victims,” he said.

“We want to do all we can to make sure the victims aren’t doubly victimized by the situation, by all the media coverage.”

The Canadian Religious Conference, which represents 250 Catholic religious congregations across Canada, while condemning Vanier’s actions, commended the international L’Arche movement and its Canadian branch “for their courage and transparency throughout this process.”

“May the consequences of the behaviour of this spiritual clay-footed giant have the least possible impact on the organization of L’Arche, which continues to accomplish an extraordinary mission,” the conference said in a statement.

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