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President's Report : Annual General Meeting, May 2001

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following is the President's Report that was delivered at the 2001 NFB:AE Conference on Friday, May 25, 2001.

Welcome to everybody who is in attendance at the conference. As far as I can tell from the list, we have people that are registered from five provinces and one territory.

To start off, I just want to say how much of a privilege it has been to serve as your President for the past two years. It has been a tremendous learning experience for me in terms of the issues that the organization has had to confront. I have met some absolutely wonderful people that I would like to stay in touch with for the rest of my life. I have seen some real dedication to changing what it means to be blind in this country. I cannot emphasize enough how appreciative I am of the work that has been done by the organization by its staff and by its members. I want to give you a sense of what that work has been over the past two years because the work record of the organization has been impressive.

To start with, the organization over the past two years has really started to build up a presence on the national scene. This has happened in a number of different ways especially in the areas dealing with descriptive video, access to information and guide dog legislation. The organization has been very much involved in lobbying governments, lobbying companies and lobbying various commissions and task forces on the needs of what blind people actually require to be accommodated so that we can read the newspaper at the same time as everyone else; we can watch a movie at the same time as everyone else and know what's going on, and we can get into the same buildings as everyone else without facing discrimination because we happen to be accompanied with a guide dog. These are absolutely critical, fundamental, life-altering change motivations that we have to deal with. These are things that blind people have to have access to be able to compete effectively with the rest of society. We need information; we need to have access to good services and facilities, and we need to have the opportunity on a level playing field to compete with everybody else because if we have that opportunity we are as good as or better than everyone else.

Another area where we have been very busy is of course in the publishing of our magazine. John Rae has done a fabulous job in putting four issues together during the last two years. The most recent one actually just hit the streets. It's on the topic of education. As I said in the front of the magazine - for those who haven't got it yet - I think it's the best we've done. It includes materials written by students, by itinerant teachers and others who are very much involved in the education system. I am very, very pleased with all of the work that has gone into the Monitor. As far as I'm concerned, I've been honored to see this magazine become one of the highest selling points for this organization. It's current, it's relevant, it's hard-hitting and it's topical. In terms of our community, it's probably the best publication out there to keep people informed of what's going on in this country in terms of advocacy, new technologies, in terms of work opportunities and the like. So I just can't say enough positive things about this magazine. I think it's been of tremendous value to the organization.

Now I'll put this next part in the middle because people usually get bored with it - and that's the finances. Somebody's got to say something sometime this weekend because John Rae isn't with us. In 1998, the organization ran a deficit of roughly $20,000. In the last two years, we have changed that position around to a surplus position of roughly $8,000, and we earned about one-third less income than we did back in 1998. So there has been a real change in terms of money management. We're also spending and acquiring our money more wisely. What we've seen over the last two years with our fundraisers is that we're getting a bigger share of the pie than we used to, which is an improvement for the organization. We've also diversified some of our fund raising to go into areas such as direct corporate mailings and internet fund raising. These initiatives were not done before by this organization. Through the hard work of people such as Richard Marion, Kelly Boychuk, and Corry Stuive when he was working for the organization, these things are a reality now. They weren't two years ago. And thank you to the three of you for your hard work in that area.

The next area that's really seen an improvement is the growth of the membership. As of the close of membership registration for the conference, we were at about 270 members. That's approximately double where we were in early 1999 in Victoria when I came into office. That again is due to increasing the profile of the group; increasing our activities so that people know what we're doing and find it beneficial; promoting ourselves better by using a web site, by using an e-mail distribution list and monthly reports to get our message out. We have also made significant efforts to be relevant to the members and listening to them and doing what they have elected us to do. That is so key. In all seriousness, I think that that in and of itself is a fundamental area of growth within the last two years. Quite frankly, if this organization is going to have more of a presence, it's the one area that really has to increase in its growth.

Last year I gave the group the challenge of trying to double the membership within the next year and we came awfully close, folks. I issue the same challenge to you again because this time I think we can do it.

The other piece of information on the membership front that was a big achievement was the creation of the Greater Montreal Chapter, which was formed in October 2000 through the hard work of Irene Lambert, Jennison Asuncion, Chris Gaulin and others. I would like to thank all of those people for putting together what is now the largest chapter in the organization, and also one that has embarked on quite an ambitious agenda for advocacy within Quebec. This is quite significant because this chapter is an English-speaking chapter and there really isn't a blindness-related group in Quebec who has been advocating on behalf of people who are English. So the role and the need that this chapter is filling is absolutely fundamental, and I would like to thank everybody for all their hard work in that area.

One of the perks of being President is that you get to do some fun things every once in a while. One of the tasks that I was lucky enough to do for the last three years is to be involved in the selection of the scholarship winners. It's amazing when you read these applications, how impressive the candidates are who apply for these scholarships and the diversity of experiences they have. How often do you get to find out all the details about a sound engineer, about a psychologist, about a nutritionist, about an aspiring lawyer - or whatever the case might be. The message I received in reviewing all of these scholarship applications is that those of us who are blind can achieve anything we want to achieve because there are people actually out there doing it. It's good reinforcement to see the diversity of experiences that we have had. I have been very privileged to be involved in the selection of ten first-time and two second-time NFB:AE scholarship winners, three of whom you will meet tomorrow.

The other thing that we have tried to do in the last year which I think has worked out quite well is we've tried to bring our organization more to the community in the form of information meetings. We've had meetings in Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, and I think there were one or two others that were scheduled but have not yet taken place. In arranging these meetings, we were able to get our message out to approximately 5,000 blind and vision impaired Canadians who received literature from us in the mail. Boy, It would be nice if they all joined, but at the same time at least we're getting the message out so that people know who we are and what we've done. At some point down the road they may be more inclined to join us and to have the organization grow. There have been a lot of people who have put a lot of work into these meetings and I cannot emphasize enough how important they have been in terms of the overall growth of the membership and the profile of the organization.

One thing I learned last year is when you're a lame duck like I am, the only useful thing you can really do in a speech like this is try to give a little bit of advice that people might be interested in following. Al Gore? May have a different view based on what Bill Clinton did for him. I think in our case the person who's looking to succeed me might appreciate this a little bit, and I hope that what I do offer is something that the organization can also benefit from. My first piece of advice - and I cannot emphasize this enough - is grow the membership. Until we grow, until we are a force to be reckoned with in the thousands of members, it's easy for governments, it's easy for companies, it's easy for the average citizen to say "Who are you? Speak for two, three, four or five hundred people? Come back and see me when you speak for five or ten thousand. Then I'll listen." I would say that the growth of the membership is probably the biggest priority that this organization has - over and above even the advocacy agenda - because once you've got the members, then you're more effective in your advocacy.

In terms of actually having a sense of how to do it, one of the ways is to promote your strong assets. Promote your magazine; promote the agenda that you've got already. Use your public education campaigns that Megan Tom, our summer student, is working so hard to design this summer to promote the group. Recruit, recruit, recruit! I cannot emphasize it enough!

The next issue that I'd like to raise is: We need to find a way to work better with other groups of like mind. There are a number of other groups in this country purporting to represent blind consumers. We have really failed as a community to unite those groups; to come up with common agendas; to come up with common purposes, and to work together. If you have a coalition of groups going forward, as has been developed in B.C. with the ASIC coalition, there are real advantages to it when you are advocating on behalf of the blind or the visually impaired as a whole rather than on behalf of a small section of the blind or the visually impaired. Rob Sleath - who is here today - his work on behalf of ASIC has amply demonstrated the effectiveness of this kind of coalition building a coalition. I think if this group or any blindness-related group is going to get anywhere in terms of lobbying governments, in terms of persuading companies to make products accessible, and the like, that's what we're going to need to see. They're going to need to get it from all sides and from all different perspectives. We have the skills to do that. We have the skills as a community to work together. The only question that we have to answer ourselves is: Is that what we want to do? And my view is that it should be what we want to do.

In the last two years, this group has really changed. I said to you last year when I was here that when I was lucky enough to join the group, it was really made up of an uneasy coalition between a number of different factions that really was focused on changing the status quo within the group that existed at that time. Now after two years I see a more vibrant group, a more expressive group, and even though there is considerable diversity within the group, I would still say that it is a much more tolerant group than we have ever seen before. Free speech, freedom of ideas, freedom of thought are all present, are all welcomed and are all appreciated by the leadership. I strongly hope that these trends will continue because it really has resulted in a much more positive and much more frank and encouraging environment in which I, as your President, have been able to work. I do appreciate the candour that I have received over the last two years from people.

People may not realize it, but there are some advantages with me leaving, the first of which is you have to have somebody else to beat up on. Seriously, we'll have to find somebody else that we can tease, we can pester, we can call at 3:00 in the morning and say "Hey, what about this?" I'm glad it's not me anymore. Also, a real advantage in a group like this is there are a lot of talented people who do have the capabilities of assuming the roles of leadership. I think it's really important that this group, unlike some of the other groups to the south of us, doesn't build up dynasties where you have the same leader for a long period of time who is leading the group for five, ten, twenty, thirty years because that leads to ideas becoming stale, approaches becoming out of date and ultimately the group becoming stale. And I think it's a good thing that there is as much turnover as there is so that we have new perspectives, we have new approaches and we have new skills being brought to the table.

In my time as President, I've tried to bring as best as I could the values of honesty, integrity and courage to the position. I hope that others will continue to do the same because in this job those three things are absolutely key. Your word means everything in terms of when you're negotiating with people. Your honesty with your membership, with yourself and with your friends means everything because without that honesty you cannot lead and you don't have people's respect. If you don't have courage to sometimes take unpopular positions with some within your membership, you're never going to get anywhere as a leader. In my view, there are times when you have to look at what's in the best interests of the community as a whole and make those tough calls rather than just focusing on what appears to be popular in the immediate term. I've tried to do that while at the same time respecting the wishes of our members and respecting their views. But I'd be lying to you if I said they've been acetum All the time; they haven't been. A leader has to make those tough calls and I hope I've done them well. I know that there are things that I could do better but I think overall we've made out okay.

Now the hard part of the speech. There are a lot of people that have really made a difference in the job that I've done and I want to thank them all individually. First, I'd like to thank our founders: the Gabias's (Paul and Mary Ellen), Alan and Doreen Neville, Rick Oakes, and others for creating this group and doing all of the hard work it took to get this group incorporated, to get registered charitable status and to encourage many of the people who are here today to actually join the group for the first time. Without that membership base, without that initial work being done, quite frankly we wouldn't be here today. So I thank them for their efforts.

I'd like to thank Alan Neville himself in another personal capacity because of his service with me on the Board of Directors in the first year of my term. Alan's wisdom, his commitment, his character and his dedication to this group are unparalleled. I remember having discussions with Alan very late at night just to get advice from another perspective on a number of issues - just to have that reassurance, just to have that knowledge that there's another way to look at a problem. He was very good at that.

In terms of the current Board, I'd like to thank Grant Robinson for all of his support, not only for the past two years but for the past seven as a friend, and for his work as Secretary in keeping us all intellectually honest.

I'd like to thank John Rae for all of his work on the Monitor, for all of his work as Treasurer, and for helping me develop the technique of tearing ideas apart to really evaluate their effectiveness. John and I used to have a number of discussions throughout the year of considering various ideas, and rather than getting into it on a personal level we'd actually tear the idea apart right down to the ground and work it back up in a better form. It's a very important skill to have when you're trying to build an organization and you're trying to lead it in new ways, to have people that you can bounce ideas off that quite frankly if they're not popular they won't see the daylight. And

I'd also like to thank Richard Marion who I would refer to as the "Jack of all trades" within this organization. Richard has helped in a number of different areas including fund raising, advocacy, providing a very good historical knowledge of the organization, and again, keeping us honest insofar as what the membership in the west thinks on issues. What tends to happen when you have so many board members out east in a big country like this is sometimes you lose perspective. Richard has been very good throughout the year in keeping us with that perspective, and I thank him for that.

Betty Nobel - you know, where do you start? I've known Betty now for I guess four years and I've been lucky enough to serve with her when she was the First Vice-President for the first year and a Member at Large for the second year of my term. We are lucky to have such a remarkable person on the Board who has such a breadth of experience in advocacy, education, training, adult learning, volunteering, etc. Her experience has been valued to such an extent that she has been awarded the Woman of Distinction Award from the YWCA in Vancouver in the area of education, training and development. I want you to understand that there were 11 awards given out and there were about 110 women nominated. That gives you a sense of the commitment that Betty has brought to her volunteer work generally, the commitment she has brought to this organization specifically and also the dedication that she generally brings to her work. And I'd like to congratulate Betty formally for that award.

Now we come to Ross, who basically was the savior of this organization when I was sick. Back in December I had some surgery and was flat on my back with morphine going into my arm. Ross kept us going. He kept the agendas moving forward; he kept the group moving forward, and he's also got us all interested now in the Court Challenges Program to advance a constitutional challenge against certain sections of the Copyright Act. What Ross has really brought to us that I would like to thank him for is his ability to think outside the box, his ability to cause us to consider new things that others of us would not have considered. When you're trying to build a group like this, it's important to have somebody with that perspective to cause us to think in a more forward way rather than just sticking to the tried and true approaches. And I'd like to thank Ross for that.

I would also like to thank Irene Lambert for her hard work in forming the Montreal chapter and in heading the Membership Committee. We will all remember receiving countless emails asking us to recruit, to give money to the organization to support recruitment efforts, etc. She also brought a certain wisdom to the board given her long service on behalf of blindness related groups in Canada and the United States.

Now the really hard part. There have been two people that without them I couldn't do this job, and those are our two staff in Kelowna. One is not here today; he will be dealt with separately, but one is. With this person's help and along with the help of her family who but for them we wouldn't be getting our Monitors, we wouldn't be getting our monthly reports because Chantel and Jessica are the chief envelope stuffers of the organization and we very much appreciate all you've done. Without the work of Kelly Boychuk, our books wouldn't be in the shape they're in; I wouldn't have the support from an administrative, from an emotional, from a confidence point of view that I've had for the past two years, and this group just wouldn't have got the work done that it's got done. I'm a bit short for words but I'd just like to say "Thank you, Kelly and to all of the rest of you for everything. "