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Beginnings: The Building of the AEBC

Editor's Note: Dave Greenfield is an AEBC member in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He is a writer of both poetry and prose and an activist in a variety of issue areas.

When discussing the beginnings of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC), we must acknowledge that there were several forces that came together from different directions to bring the AEBC into being.

In 1990, several blind activists from across Canada, who were attending an unrelated event, held an informal meeting in their hotel room at which they discussed the idea of forming a national blind consumer organization. There were two people from the Saskatoon-based group, The Visually Impaired Persons' Action Council (VIPAC), a few former members of the Blind Organization of Ontario with Self-help Tactics (BOOST), a couple people from the Quebec-based Les Regroupement des Aveugles et Amblyotes du Quebec (RAAQ), and a couple who had been involved with the National Federation of the Blind in the United States, who were now living in Canada.

A name that was floated at this informal meeting was the Association of Blind Canadians (ABC). The couple who had been involved in the National Federation of the Blind in the U.S., Paul and Mary Ellen Gabias, seemed to be indicating that they wanted an organization modelled very much on the U.S. organization, while the activism of the other people present was rooted much more in the Canadian blind consumer experience.

Nothing more came of this meeting. No formal decisions were made, and the activists returned home to their individual local involvements.

A few years later, we learned that Paul and Mary Ellen Gabias had founded the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality (NFB:AE) in 1992. The following year, they contacted members of VIPAC to ask if they would like to join. One of the members, Brenda Cooke, had been present at the 1990 meeting and had attended the 1991 national convention of the American NFB in New Orleans, where she had again encountered the Gabiases.

Between 1993 and 1996, blind activists from several different Canadian communities, including Victoria, Vancouver, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Toronto, also encountered the Gabiases and their desire to build a national consumer group modelled on the U.S. NFB. During these years, the NFB:AE held its annual meetings at the yearly national convention of the American NFB, which meant that Canadians who had become members of the NFB:AE had to travel down to the U.S. convention in order to take part in their own organization's annual meeting.

By the summer of 1996, blind activists in Victoria, Vancouver, Kalona, Winnipeg and Toronto had formed NFB:AE Chapters and were, for the most part, experiencing mixed feelings about their Canadian organization's close ties to the American NFB.

In September of 1996, Saskatoon blind activist Beryl Williams took a step that would prove to be among the most significant in this country’s blind consumer history--starting an email list called Viewpoints, on which blind and partially sighted Canadians could discuss issues of common concern. This was at a time when email and email listservs were a relatively new experience for the average citizen. Viewpoints, to my knowledge, was the first independent email list for Canadian blind consumers, owned and operated by blind consumers themselves.

Between September and December of 1996, a revolution in communication occurred for Canadian blind consumers. Activists, who had been working in small, isolated groups in various parts of Canada and who had only been in touch with each other once every few years, were suddenly communicating with each other on a daily basis, sharing thoughts and discussing concerns, by way of the Viewpoints list. Beryl Williams, Judy Prociuck and I from Saskatoon; Ainley and Barry Bridgeman and Ross Edie from Winnipeg; John Rae, Neil Graham and Brian Moore from Toronto, and many others, were all suddenly in regular contact across the vast Canadian landscape.

While many topics came up in our discussions, one inevitably arose and cried out for attention: the question of forming a national blind consumer organization. There tended to be two dominant ideas--that people should work with the NFB:AE, since that group already existed, and that a new organization should be formed with a different name, and which would be more firmly grounded in the Canadian blind experience.

A few VIPAC members had kept alive the idea of a group with the initials ABC, with the letters standing for Alliance of Blind Canadians instead of Association of Blind Canadians.

This discussion went on, off and on, on the Viewpoints list, for a year or so, until gradually people active in certain NFB:AE Chapters came to feel confident enough in their numbers to envision a process of adjusting the organization, ever so slightly, into what we wanted.

People appreciated much of NFB:AE’s progressive blindness philosophy, which encouraged self-confidence, -empowerment and –assertiveness, but they tended to feel that Paul and Mary Ellen Gabias were trying to build an organization a little too rigidly modelled on the American National Federation of the Blind. People wanted an organization that could grow organically out of the Canadian blind consumer experience. We needed to confront the issues for ourselves as we encountered them, rather than being given a ready-made philosophy that was the result of half a century of thought and action by blind people in another country.

The first step towards a transition in the NFB:AE came at the 1998 Annual General Meeting in Vancouver when members elected Richard Marion as President. While everything did not change all at once, the election of Richard Marion certainly signified that a new spirit was stirring in the organization.

The second and more definitive step occurred the following year at the 1999 AGM in Victoria, when members adopted a resolution stating clearly that the organization would proceed and develop policies and practices arising from the Canadian blind consumer experience. Once this resolution was adopted, the Gabiases and a handful of their supporters walked out of the meeting singing, "Glory, glory, Federation.” It is important to realize that we never told them that they had to leave, and we never said that we couldn't work with them. As stated earlier in this article, we simply needed to allow the organization to grow naturally from our experience of blindness-related issues as Canadian consumers with vision impairments.

The people who walked out of the meeting went on to form their own organization, the Canadian Federation of the Blind, naming it after the older blindness consumer group of the 1920s and 30s. The majority who remained in the NFB:AE continued to work to build a self-governing national blind consumer organization across Canada.

By 2004, NFB:AE members felt they wanted to make the transition complete by giving the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality a new name. After a fair amount of discussion, our organization was renamed the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians. After many years of talking about forming a national blind consumer organization, and then organizing to take over and transform what they saw as a somewhat flawed organization, Canadian blind consumers finally had their independent national organization, and had given it their own name.

The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians can rightfully be seen as the offspring of several entities, including the NFB:AE, the Viewpoints network, VIPAC and the memory of BOOST. The challenge now is to continue to build the AEBC as a powerful progressive voice for Canadian blind consumers, and as a force to be reckoned with.