The Globe and Mail is the Canadian equivalent of the New York Times. It is a Toronto-based paper (one of four), but it shares the same spot in the national consciousness as the Times, and delights in its own magisterial expanse. Some years ago the Globe and Mail established its Nation Builder of the Year award. In an effort to soften its patrician image, the paper invites nominations from its readership, an exercise in populist democracy in the largest city of a country that is still a constitutional monarchy.
Past Nation Builders have included the usual run of worthies: a philanthropist, a former leader of a political party, an Olympic athlete, a jurist or two, and the father of the BlackBerry, a communications device beloved of the mighty and the connected across the planet.
This year’s winner is a man who has spent his life calling into question society’s penchant for ranking, honors, and success: Jean Vanier. While others have contributed to their nation’s success through their physical prowess, financial acumen, political savvy, or entrepreneurial genius, Vanier’s contribution has been to call into question the very standard by which we judge “success.” He is the consummate subversive of the value system that equates human dignity with utility.
Vanier’s spiritual makeup seems embedded in his DNA. He is the scion of a...