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The Organizations That Tried: Predecessors 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 number of issue areas.

During the 20th century, in the decades prior to the founding of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC), there were several attempts in various parts of Canada to establish consumer organizations of the blind and partially sighted.

In 1926, several local consumer groups, particularly from Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba, came together to form the Canadian Federation of the Blind (CFB). One of the organization’s major concerns was achieving a very basic economic security for blind people. It advocated for a monthly blindness pension, which it eventually achieved in 1937 to the tune of $10 per month. The organization was also interested in employment and greater independence for the blind.

One of the major figures involved in the CFB was Philip E. Layton, himself blind, who operated a successful piano tuning business in Montreal. He also helped to found the Montreal Association for the Blind, a rehabilitation centre teaching adaptive skills and largely run by blind consumers.

Many of the people active in the Canadian Federation of the Blind had issues with the countrywide service provider, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). The CNIB had been founded in 1918, and had, in the view of many, adopted an overly rigid and paternalistic approach toward questions of blindness. As a result of the Federation's desire to think freely, be fully independent of the CNIB's sphere of influence, and enable blind people to speak for themselves, the CNIB took a hostile attitude toward the Federation. The CNIB tended to be governed by its desire to be in the good books with the Canadian business community, and tended to view the CFB as an organization aligned with the labour and social democratic movement in Canada, a movement calling for economic justice rather than charity.

The 1930s were a decade of poverty and despair for many groups of people within Canada, and for blind people, who were already marginalized, the experience of poverty was that much greater. Following this decade, the years of World War II saw a sharp, though temporary, increase in employment opportunities for blind Canadians, as labour was scarce and greater industrial production levels were required to support the war effort. By 1945, these ups and downs for blind Canadians had largely devastated the CFB.

At its height, the Federation had established a number of local social clubs in various cities across Canada. These clubs brought blind people together to share stories, discuss issues, and perhaps experience a badly needed break from the monotony of marginalization. As the Federation petered out, many of these social clubs were taken over by a new organization, the Canadian Council of the Blind (CCB).

While the Canadian Federation of the Blind had challenged the CNIB, and sought to create independent space where blind people could speak for themselves, the CCB, from its beginnings, seems to have made a point of working with the CNIB, even being submissive to it. For many years, CCB allowed CNIB to be its sole source of funding. This was so much the case that during the 50s and 60s, it was perceived by many as being no more than the CNIB's puppet. During these years, blind people in Canada, technically, had a national consumer organization, the Canadian Council of the Blind; however, its members, at its annual meetings, adopted resolutions calling for the CCB to take various types of actions but, generally, none was acted upon unless the CNIB thought it was in its interests.

The 1960s and 70s were a time when many marginalized groups began visibly and publicly fighting for their rights. The African American civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s inspired many to start thinking about questions of equality and social justice. The anti-war, women's, environmental and disability rights movements would all emerge and take to the streets working for social change. This was the era when the North American baby boom came of age on our campuses and in our streets.

By the 1970s, the Canadian blind section of the baby boom had also strutted out on to the stage of history. Several local blind consumer organizations arose across the country. In Atlantic Canada, in the early 70s, the Blind Rights Action Movement (BRAM) emerged as a somewhat short-lived entity, comprised largely of graduates from the Halifax School for the Blind. The group focused on education, but petered out when four of its leading members got jobs with the CNIB, and apparently felt that they were changing the system from within, rather than from without.

In the mid 70s, the Manitoba Federation of the Visually handicapped was founded, as was Le Regroupement des Aveugles et Amblyopes du Quebec (RAAQ).

The most nationally significant consumer organization to emerge in this era was the Blind Organization of Ontario with Self-Help Tactics (BOOST), founded in early 1975. Based in Toronto and other centres in Ontario, Canada's psychological heartland, the group’s activism on a variety of issues quickly gained a degree of profile that most of the other consumer groups of this time did not.

While BOOST addressed a variety of issues of concern to blind Ontarians, including the lack of legislation, need for new employment opportunities and need for self- and public education, its ability to articulate valid criticisms of the CNIB is probably what caused people to sit up and take notice. In a culture where the CNIB was, and still is, considered to be an unquestionable sacred cow, here suddenly was a group of young articulate blind people confronting the CNIB in the nation’s heartland.

In 1979, several BOOST leaders, including John Rae and Mike Yale (later to become active in the AEBC), began a one-year project that culminated in the 1980 publication of "Self-Help and Government Commitment: A Call to Action, Developing Alternative Service Models” (DASM). The report examined the history of both the CNIB and the blindness consumer movement in Canada. Among its many recommendations, it called for the CNIB to be phased out in ten years and replaced by provincial, government-run commissions of the blind. This report caused ripples on the Canadian pond. Its two leading authors, Rae and Yale, were interviewed on Morningside, one of CBC Radio's major current affairs programs at the time. Other media also took note.

While the DASM report had given a higher profile to BOOST's concerns, its recommendations were not without controversy. Not everyone in BOOST favoured phasing out the CNIB. Some could not seem to free themselves from an emotional addiction to the service provider, and a few were even offered employment with the agency. The internal battles within BOOST over the following years led some to wonder if the CNIB was deliberately working to co-opt BOOST members and use “divide and conquer” tactics against the consumer group.

The CNIB's hostility toward the Canadian Federation of the Blind in the 1920s and 30s had likely contributed to the CFB's downfall, and the CNIB's ability to co-opt four of the leaders of the Maritimes’ Blind Rights Action Movement in the early 1970s had effectively destroyed that consumer group. Now, faced with this more serious threat, it was surmised that the CNIB was sewing seeds of division within BOOST. Whether or not this was the case, by 1983 the question of how to approach the CNIB was tearing BOOST apart.

For a short time, around 1980, there had been talk of BOOST going national and forming a countrywide blindness consumer organization that could pick up where the CFB had left off 40 years earlier, but this idea did not take off and the opportunity was lost.

In the spring of 1987, some blind activists in Saskatoon, who had admired BOOST, invited John Rae, one of the authors of the DASM report, to speak to a day-long seminar on blindness issues. Out of this one-day seminar, a new local organization, the Visually Impaired Persons' Action Council (VIPAC), was formed. It would exist as an active force from 1988 until about 1998. It would raise issues on the local scene in Saskatoon, and publish the results of two major surveys--"Information Needs" and "Speaking of Employment." Over time, the frustrations of being a small local organization, in a world where institutional controls existed on a much larger scale, began to take its toll on morale. VIPAC, too, was destined to peter out, as it realized the limits of what a small consumer organization could accomplish in a local context. A few members of VIPAC, however, would come to play an important role in the establishment and evolution of Canada's first independent national blindness consumer group since the 1940s, the organization now known as the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians.

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