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Ellen Vaillancourt

Recipient of the 2012 SFU Staff Achievement Award, Ellen has been with the Centre since 2008. As a “ten year” SFU staffer, her work has concentrated on issues of pluralism, diversity, development and bridging the divides.

Currently, she collaborates with faculty, students and the larger community on a wide range of outreach initiatives geared towards creating a greater understanding and appreciation of Muslim cultures and societies. Ellen is responsible for executing conceptual frameworks to action and implementation with real and virtual team(s).

Additionally, she brings much international experience and leadership to her role, having formerly been the Program Coordinator of many regional and international development projects with SFU's Office of International Development. Projects funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) include some of the following: Adult Education for Economic Development, (Cambodia, Thailand and Laos), Reducing the Stigma of HIV and AIDS, (Ghana) and Bridging the Divides, a regional comparative project on the impact of Information Communication and Technologies (ICTs) on Innovation Learning. 

A keen appreciation for unique, unusual patterns has her weaving unlikely alliances –­ sacred webs ­­– with and between people of plural and diverse cultures and societies. This interest is also reflected in her personal life as an avid traveler, a community inter-spiritual leader, an active partner with the Charter for Compassion Network (Seattle), a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village projects, a member of the International Labyrinth Society and a certified labyrinth facilitator, Ellen is an artist and a seer of beauty – a social architect.

Ellen is an affiliate with the Greater Vancouver Compassion Network <http://www.gvcn.ca/>, Women of Spirit and Faith (Vancouver) <http://womenofspiritandfaith.org/index.cfm?preset=WSFCanada>, the International Labyrinth Society <http://labyrinthsociety.org/>, and Women Transforming Cities Vancouver <womentransformingcities.org> to name a few.

Through the shared purposes of these networks arose the idea of the SFU Peace Labyrinth, a project that began to surface in Fall 2010. In Spring 2013, a proposal was brought forth to SFU and in the spring of 2014, it was approved by Senior SFU officials as an independent community building initiative. The project is now coming to fruition with the support of many SFU Faculty, staff, students, and the participation and support of the larger Vancouver community.

Working with SFU Facilities Services and labyrinth builders from the Labyrinth Society, Ellen is coordinating the preparation work and construction of the seasonal turf labyrinth. With a group of eager volunteers from the SFU campus and larger Vancouver community, Vaillancourt is simultaneously organizing the Peace Labyrinth public opening celebration set for the Solstice, June 21, 2014.

Throughout her multifaceted career, she has travelled to over 30 countries and is continually envisioning and implementing projects while connecting people and organizations around the globe.

"It is the evocative beauty and sacredness found in shared ritual and celebration with ‘the Other’ that stirs my soul." 


Articles about Ellen

Staffer on Himalayan fundraising trek

Grimper Au Sommet du Monde

Combatting Ignorance about Islam

SFU Ventures into Spirituality with Labyrinth


Articles Written by Ellen

This Christmas I gave the gift of Truth

My Inside Look at The London Central Mosque


Latest creative writing bio

My name means Light. Double Light, actually. Ellen Dawn.

Lover of humanity, for me people are like crack and I'm an experience junkie. I tend to see Beauty and meaning in everything (a particularly overwhelming phenomenon), even in that which is not perceived as beautiful or significant by most. I connect the dots across time and space (my own variation of playing multi-dimensional chess). I'm fascinated with multi-sensory and experiential learning, growing, suffering, healing, dying and love – essentially the journey, and the process of being transformed by the journey.

The Journey

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Ellen Vaillancourt née Obiedzinski, developed a taste for aesthetics, culture and travel at an early age. The vast prairie inspired in her a keen appreciation for the beauty of nature, order and chaos. An endless painted horizon filled her with dreams of distant lands.

Trained as a couturier in Paris, France, she returned to Vancouver in 1985, quickly becoming a small business leader in the apparel design industry. Here, she gained the respect and recognition for her creativity, innovation, event production, collaborative spirit and business development acumen. After two decades, her quest for beauty and a deeper meaning led her to academia.

Her passion for travel and people initially led to her work with the Office of International Development as Program Coordinator and currently with SFU's Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures (the cradle Catholic who runs the Muslim Study Centre). Ellen’s multifaceted background, including event production, education and training, research and development, business and design, translate into service excellence.

Vaillancourt is preparing to pursue a MA program in Conflict Transformation and Peace Building where she will apply her research on the healing and transformative effects of beauty. 

A waterfall of creative expression continues to wend and weave its way into a tapestry of both professional and private projects. She has taught for numerous Vancouver design schools and written curriculum for Fashion Arts Professional Practices programs. She has nurtured the conception and operation of several Canadian private-label clothing companies, crafted costumes for theatre, custom work for private clientele and consulted for both the public and private sector on issues of image and person-perception. 

In 2007, she began volunteering for Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village project and has participated in two builds, one with each of her sons, India 2007, and Mongolia 2009.

 In Spring 2011, she planned her own solo journey (drawing her inspiration from Ibn Batuta – who ran circles around Marco Polo), stopping in Hong Kong, Nepal, Qatar and the UK for the purposes of work, research and volunteer work.

While in Nepal, she participated in a fundraiser for KINA Social Ventures, a Vancouver based non-profit organization that helps at-risk Nepalese girls and women receive an education. A two week trek through the remote rural villages of the Solu Khumbu region with Nepali based NGO, The Small World, involved site visits at women’s development projects, including a new girls' school hostel. 

The research conducted in Nepal, a directed studies course through SFU's Faculty of Education, explores various theories involving women, culture and development, as they apply to female artisans. She plans to have this research inform the realization of a new social enterprise that will benefit women of the Global South by providing them with an opportunity for small business creation and ultimately, freedom.  

During Summer 2012, she extended her research to include Albania and Turkey. Summer 2013 brought her to Morocco among other countries.

The Projects

Though Ellen prefers to go by no title, the closest would be 'social architect' and as such, the current projects in her personal portfolio with themes of her life’s purpose, ‘fostering a greater awareness and appreciation of Beauty and creating platforms for It's infinite expression’, include:

A 'short-term' project in the works is to secure, in partnership, the art exhibition entitled, ‘The Hajj: A journey to Mecca'. The first of it’s kind, The Hajj – curated by the British Museum – opened to the public between January and April 2012, in London, U.K. Through a collaborative effort, the show is to come to a gallery in the Pacific Northwest. At this point in our world history, it is of critical importance to enhance greater awareness and acceptance of 'the Other', so that there is no longer a distinction of ‘the Other’ – or “us and them” – but rather, simply, ‘We’, while simultaneously celebrating and honouring our differences.

The SFU Peace Labyrinth project cultivates more beauty by heightening awareness, understanding and appreciation of people having different faith and belief traditions. The labyrinth is but one approach of many ancient tradition(s) of walking meditation or circling into prayer, as found in various circular practices and laws such as Islamic divine law, the medicine wheel; sacred geometry and mandalas that have long been part of Eastern, Western and Indigenous traditions.

As author Sarah Ban Breathnach points out in her book Simple Abundance, (1995), “Carl Jung believed that "the Self" could only be realized by circumambulating, in the African tradition, our earthly span is called "the circle of life", many Native American indigenous people believe that the power of the world works in circles, their Dream Catcher is circular, the Sufi (Persian) Enneagram maps onto a circular formation, Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims circle the base of Tibet's Mount Kailas in worship, Muslims circle the Kabah in Mecca. Christians circle the labyrinth in the naive of the Chartres Cathedral, France. The sculptures at Stonehenge, England are form a circle, the communion host offered at a Catholic mass is a round wafer, Plato believed that the soul was a circle. The more we look, the more circles we find.”

The third project is the development of a new social enterprise, benefiting women of the Global South. The concept combines the abstraction of beauty with development work and aims to create an alternate source of income, opportunities for skills development, education and training through the production of a high quality garment known as – wearable art.  Artisans will produce pieces that embody the cultural essence and traditions of their country of origin, thus preserving traditional arts while creating awareness of their cultures and societies.

During the spring of 2012, the inspiration for the Ayasofya Urban Retreat (pronounced 'eye - a - sophia', after Sophia, the Sacred Feminine) appeared as something Ellen envisions as an 'urban sanctuary', in an area of Vancouver where gentrification meets homelessness. The Ayasofya Urban Retreat is place where all are welcome. It is a place where poets, artists, yogis, mystics, musicians, and philosophers – expressing their own unique forms of beauty – can be in residence; a place where one can be profoundly heard, by one who profoundly listens.

The Ayasofya Urban Retreat is a place offering all things Beautiful, to delight the senses, heal hearts, inspire minds and stir souls; a place to come and rest – a place to love and serve.

Most Influential Book 

 Come Over to My House,
LeSieg T., (Pseudonym for Theodore Seuss Geisel, 'Dr. Suess') circa 1965

Most Influencial Prayer

  'Thanks' (and may I be the living expression of my gratitude).

Artist’s Note

The late Reverend John O’Donohue, Irish poet, author, Catholic priest, and Hegelian philosopher (2004) writes, “Beauty…is the highest integrative level of understanding and the most comprehensive capacity for effective action. It enables us to go with, rather than against, the deepest tendency or theme of the universe” (p. 7). It is from this place that I draw my courage to be authentic – hence vulnerable – free of masks, while remaining steadfast and purposeful. It is from this place I garner trust and ‘know’ that as I go forward I am never alone. As the Holy Quran reminds us, “Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the succession of night and day, there are indeed signs for those who are endowed with insight” (Surat 3, Verse 190). Simply by being attuned to the multitudes of daily affirmations or ‘signs’ – glimpses of Beauty ­ – I ‘know’ that I’m being graced in living a purpose full life. ‘Come,’ says my Heart, ‘Seek God’s Face!’ Psalm 27:8

Theme Song of the Moment 

 I Believe - Irfan Makki & Maher Zain  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRztmbnyV70

Life Uncommon - Jewel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUEnxhtzMeo

Favourite Quotes

"The master in the art of living makes little distinction between [her] work and [her] play, [her] labor and [her] leisure, [her] mind and [her] body, [her] information and [her] recreation, [her] love and [her] religion. She hardly knows which is which. [She] simply pursues [her] vision of excellence at whatever [she] does, leaving others to decide whether [she] is working or playing. To [her][she's] always doing both." ~ James A. Michener

"You desire to know the art of living, my friend? It is contained in one phrase: make use of suffering." ~ Henri-Frederic Amiel

"Tell me, what is it that you plan to do with this one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

"And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” ~ Anais Nin

"I have learned that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours" ~ Hendry David Thoreau

“There are hundreds of ways to neel and kiss the ground>” ! Jalal ud-Din Rumi

“ Et comme un tournesol, gardez toujours le visage vers le soliel.” ~ Ellen Vaillancourt


  27:1 The Lord is my strength and my salvation – whom shall I fear?

More pictures of Ellen