Social Inclusion Cannot Exist without True Community and Friendship

L’Arche Canada is participating in a series of round tables on the theme of “Living Together” – sharing life with and including persons who are vulnerable and marginalized in the heart of our communities. It is a chance for individuals from organizations that are part of the cause of creating a more just, compassionate and inclusive world to come together to share experience, learn together and be inspired.

L’Arche Canada organized, with other partners, the first round table this summer at the World Social Forum that took place in Montreal. Subsequent gatherings have been organized in Montreal and in Gatineau with the hope that they spread to other regions in the next several months.

Coming together around the table with partners to reflect on our common cause has been a core L’Arche practice for over fifty years. Sharing our values and experience in public forums helps us put words around what we are learning and offer it to others. It also allows us to listen to and be inspired by the experience of others who live the vision in different ways. It helps us to continue to develop and deepen our understanding and renews our spirit for living the every day.

The L’Arche Canada Outreach and Communications is working to support communities and regions to continue this essential work. We also seek to share what we are discovering at different tables so that it helps us all to continue to live and renew L’Arche with passion and commitment.

Here is some of the reflection from the first round table.

It Takes a Village to Raise a Child

To open the round table, long time L’Arche member Jean Dansereau of Pavillon du Parc cited this African proverb, revealing the disparity between the way of life of many traditional communities and the individualism that prevails in our contemporary societies.

Despite increased investments in all sorts of services, Dansereau states that isolation is a growing phenomenon in our world. For many of today’s marginalized people, community life feels like an ever more unattainable utopia. He goes on to consider why exclusion continues even though western countries have implemented many different policies.

“Other larger obstacles exist beyond the struggles we just heard about, beyond the physical obstacles that prevent us from easily accessing spaces and certain kinds of activities,” says Dansereau. He claims that at worst, such hurdles can be “destructive, creating distance between us and causing us to exclude people who don’t look like we do.”

Having worked in the field for forty years, Jean Dansereau is very familiar with the existing network of health and social services. He spoke of the role of professional services, clarifying that he is “far from being the kind of person who contests the importance of acquiring expertise to learn how to provide people with quality accompaniment. The problem is when expertise becomes the answer and method for inclusion. We cannot create inclusion through professional relationships. Inclusion can only exist when people are able to develop friendships.”

For “relearning how to live together,” Dansereau says that “the challenge lies in doing it with marginalized people. If we can’t include the most vulnerable, we will not create an inclusive society; we will create an increasingly compartmentalized society and within this, tomorrow morning each one of us may wake up to the consequences and I would say… prejudices that this could cause.”

According to Dansereau, “if we want to create a more inclusive society, we must absolutely go beyond what is practical and choose to take the risk of forming relationships.”

* * *

Validating Jean Dansereau’s presentation, Mélissa Desjardins, who has multiple sclerosis, spoke on behalf of marginalized people.

She told us that after losing her mobility, existing services failed to alleviate the “real need for true connection, just being able to share and count on people.”

Ms. Desjardins experiences the same glaring need of many people who find themselves on the periphery of professional life.

“We need real communities,” she says. “We need people to commit and really just dare to look at their neighbours who might be elderly or have a disability, to reach out and hold their hand… It might also be a new immigrant, or someone who just got hired, but it’s about opening ourselves to difference…”

* * *

Social worker Nadia Fleury spends her days answering calls to CISSSO’s Info-Social phone line (811). She can attest to the distress of people who are in the process of losing their social networks.

“For the bulk of our calls,” Fleury says. “The common denominator can be summarized as the disintegration of people’s social networks. These people no longer work; they have little to do to pass the time and they’ve lost their network. As a result, they are suffering from anxious and depressive symptoms that they’re trying to relieve by talking to us.”

Ms. Fleury sent us statistics on who uses the Info-social phone line. Many calls confirm the loneliness of people who are without a network and who therefore turn to an online service for some form of support.

* * *

PAS de la rue director Robert Beaudry was also invited to speak at the round table. He shared about the particular experience of aging people who suddenly feel marginalized after losing their jobs at the end of their active lives.

Each year in Montreal, PAS de la rue welcomes close to 600 different people. For the most part, these people once held active lives up until a significant life event led them to fall into the spiral of marginalisation and social isolation.

Robert Beaudry emphasizes that even with the 107 organizations that work to fight poverty in downtown Montreal, we still face the major issue of lonely people co-existing without ever speaking.

“We still exist within that paradigm of fear, where we’re afraid of people who have gone through major life events; we’re afraid of putting people together in a room. We like to put things in boxes, to put everyone into a box… This is how marginalization happens. This is how we stigmatize people and become separate from one another… when there are so many opportunities to put everything together to improve these people’s living conditions, and they can also find a way to improve these conditions, and stop over-intervention… just bringing people together, I think that this in itself will significantly reduce the extent of marginalization.”

* * *

A researcher at the Centre interdisciplinaire de recherche en réadaptation et integration sociale (CIRRIS) (Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Rehabilitation and Social Integration), Normand Boucher, wholeheartedly agrees.

“We’ve developed an integration model that focuses more on the individual,” he explains. “This puts pressure on the patient when it comes to sociability and developing a network, competence and social skills.”

The researcher went on to tell us about the role of caregivers who are there to help people “develop their social skills and get to the point where they can work together to maintain their network and create connections. This isn’t easy in our type of society where we prioritize speed, competition and the right way of doing things…”

Mr. Boucher described a major social challenge that Quebec society currently faces.

“Presently there are some major issues,” he says. “For me, one of the problems we’re starting to research has to do with the new reality of aging with a disability… whether it’s an intellectual, physical or cognitive disability. What does aging mean when you have a disability in terms of support and living in the community?”

* * *

L’Arche communities have developed significant expertise in providing support to people as they age and lose their faculties. At the heart of community, L’Arche offers a solid network of friendship and care.

Social worker Louise Provost is L’Arche Canada’s training and recruiting coordinator. She highlights that the concept of “living with” goes far beyond simply developing services for marginalized people; it comprises a fundamental element of “Living Together.”

Ms. Provost believes the “Great Revolution that happens at L’Arche lies in the fact that we can learn from the person right in front of us.” She adds that, “when we live together, we cannot hide, meaning we can’t be at L’Arche without entering into some form of relationship with the other. This relationship changes how we see ourselves, but also how we see the other.

“How can I learn from someone who is excluded, who does not speak the same language as me? Who hasn’t experienced the same things? What will I learn from this person who isn’t considered to have value? It’s surprising what we can learn from one another within this context.”

L’Arche’s great discovery exists in the gift of people with an intellectual disability who may not possess the same skills as everyone else. They have their own talents, human and relationship strengths and social skills that reveal themselves each day as we share our lives together. “This life together will transform us,” says Louise. “It will transform my view of myself and of the other.”

* * *

Gilles Strasbourg, from Dépanneur Sylvestre’s Social Inclusion and Citizenship Initiative spoke of how people with intellectual disabilities contribute to the overall quality of community life.

Loyal participants of the Pavillon du Parc, these people grace the Dépanneur with their presence. Strasbourg says that “when it comes to inclusion, they’re our best welcoming committee… When we want to train someone in how to welcome people, we tell them, ‘Come during the day and see what goes on. Then you’ll understand how welcoming works’.” He adds that these people have their arms wide open. They welcome us with generosity, without holding back.

“It’s something that changes who you are,” he says. “It’s something that will change how you interact with others… Totally! At least that’s the way it was with me. It’s something that will completely put you in touch with your authenticity!”

Dépanneur Sylvestre is a laboratory of social inclusion whose experiments began almost 15 years ago, taking the form of cross-industry integration geared toward “Living Together.”

Mr. Strasbourg claims that “there’s some sort of chemistry, I’d say, that completely transforms the connections people form with others.”

For 40 years, Strasbourg has been a key player and manager in the social intervention field. He was responsible for the Programme de soutien aux organismes communautaires (PSOC) at the Direction générale du Centre intégré de santé et de services sociaux de l'Outaouais (Community Organization Support Program at the Outaouais Integrated Centre for Health and Social Services).

* * *

In a totally different vein, Jessica Veillet, told us about Cohabitat Québec, another extraordinary “living together” project. Ms. Veillet is project leader of Voisins solidaires au Réseau québécois de Villes et Villages en santé (RQVVS) (Neighbours in Solidarity of the Quebecois Network of Healthy Towns and Cities), as well as a co-owner and resident of Cohabitat Quebec.

She explains that, “Cohabitat Québec is a laypersons’ project, so it took nine years for us to get together, get organized, understand each other, stay motivated, and find the site… we got to the building process and then the organization of our space. They’re condos, so about 100 of us in total live there with the kids… There are 42 kids and around 60 adults. We have 42 units.”

Veillet goes on to describe the concept of cohousing, “it’s being an owner, because then you are less likely to run when there’s conflict, tension or irritation. You’re committed”.

“We have two principles that are essential to the way we do things. One is non-violent communication and we are all trained in preventing and resolving conflicts. This is the foundation for taking part in the project… and we also have a system of governance that is sociocratic.”

Ms. Veillet has witnessed the inter-generational dimension of this initiative’s version of “living together.” She shares that, “One of the greatest riches of our life at Cohabitat is that we know each other, we have a lot of mutual support to help with the kids and the elderly. I have so many grandparents there and I have learned what it means to age, and at the same time they’re also learning. We talk about it… and there is so much life experience. We have that richness…”

“For me, living at Cohabitat means that I’m learning to recognize that we all have our own paradigms, subtleties, and personalities that are evolving, ways of talking that also evolve, ways of being…”

“We learn to be more tolerant, and as well as accepting our limits and recognizing that we’ve had enough, and that’s okay, we can also be less demanding toward others.”

* * *

Final Words

To conclude, Jean Dansereau quoted Quebecois philosopher Jacques Dufresne: “Is it not through meeting one another that we create community? And is it not in the way we truly look at one another that we come together?”

Mr. Dansereau believes that, “we discover ourselves through the other’s gaze. We witness the development of a young child… The other person’s gaze reveals who we are, as much if not more than our achievements do. And so often we forget this. We think that who we are is revealed through our achievements… but once we can no longer be productive and achieve things, or what if we were never able to achieve anything, what does that mean? Does it mean we’re doomed? So if we don’t establish relationship, there isn’t really anything else. Reflection allows us to purposefully commit to going beyond action, without have illusions or undermining the obstacles that limit citizen participation.”

At L’Arche, people with and without intellectual disabilities choose to share their daily lives through mutual relationships. In this way, L’Arche communities all over the world have been practicing “living together” for more than fifty years.

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Social Inclusion Cannot Exist without True Community and Friendship

L’Arche Canada is participating in a series of round tables on the theme of “Living Together” – sharing life with and including persons who are vulnerable and marginalized in the heart of our communities.

L’Arche Canada’s monthly e-mail review of news, stories, and commentary about what is happening in L’Arche, with our partners, and within Canadian society.