Arrival, Resettlement and Assistive Technologies, 1951-1953

Photograph of Karol Gamrot and guide dog, Utta

Photograph of Karol Gamrot, with white cane and guide dog Utta, 18 January 1951, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON

"New Canadian Arrives" photograph of five-month year old Jan Jaslinsky, the infant son of Mieczyslaw Jaslinsky and his wife, held by TCA airline attendant Lucy Corey, 18 January 1951

"New Canadian Arrives," photograph of five-month old Jan Jaslinsky, infant son of Mieczyslaw Jaslinski, held by TCA airline attendant Lucy Corey, 18 Janauary 1951, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON

A catalogue page of braille watches and other time-interval devices. c.1950, Canadian National Institute for the Blind fonds, Container 63, [textual materials, (121-020029-5)],  R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON

A catalogue page of braille watches, in addition to other clocks and time-interval devices, Canadian National Institute for the Blind fonds, Container 63, [textual materials, (121-020029-5)],  R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON

In the early morning hours of January 18, 1951, eight of the first men sponsored by the CNIB arrived with their families at the Montreal Airport. Journalist Frank Lowe of the Montreal Daily Star reported the arrival of the group in glowing terms, writing, “in an age when other countries have practically closed their doors to newcomers from Europe, no matter how sound in wind and limb, Canada has welcomed them and promised them a chance to earn a living.”[1] This article and others highlighted a selection of individual stories. Karol Gamrot, a Polish man along with his wife Mariana and five-year old daughter Leona, initially caught the attention of the press due to their service dog –a German shepherd named Utta, who enthusiastically greeted Gamrot after being released from cargo storage. Lowe briefly outlined Gamrot’s story, explaining that Gamrot had been a forced labourer in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. He had lost his vision after being given poisoned alcohol by his German captors, presumably to test the effects of the substance.[2]  The other newly arrived migrants were frequently described as “war veterans” who had “lost their sight on the battlefields” even if this was not the case. The rhetoric, if misleading, emphasized the legitimacy of these migrants’ claim to resettle in Canada.[3] It would seem a “right to life” and “asylum” as stipulated by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), was not enough at this time to justify their coming to Canada.[4]

The group was then sent on by air to Toronto, where the CNIB planned to settle them, at least for a time, and find them each suitable employment. The CNIB regularly drew up and circulated lists of all the items purchased on behalf of the migrant families, which provided a clear sense of what they thought the new Canadians required. The CNIB prepared the first list of expenses within a few days of the migrants’ arrival, simply mentioning rent, food and a small selection of clothing.[5] By the following January, these items had grown to include technological aids which the CNIB considered to be essential for successful resettlement: a radio, in part for entertainment, but also to help enhance and encourage English language skills; a braille watch, an instrument the CNIB believed necessary to maintain a certain time orientation and ensure punctuality for employment and further education; and white canes for the purpose of safe transportation.[6]

At the time, the CNIB gave to each of these technological aids a value beyond what might be understood as practical uses. Braille watches had also been offered to newly blind veterans since World War I in an effort to “cheer up” soldiers, and were intended to help instil a sense of normalcy after traumatic experiences.[7] Meanwhile, the ‘white cane’, invented in 1921 by James Biggs, a British artist who was blind, quickly became popular across Europe and then North America.  In the 1930s, white cane campaigns were launched in France and the United States, in the hopes that their use would make blind people more visible, especially to a rapidly growing number of motorists. [8]   

In 1944, Dr. Richard E. Hoover, a rehabilitation specialist at Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, built off Biggs invention. While working with blinded WWII veterans, he developed a longer cane that he believed could help ensure more effective transportation and thus offer a deeper sense of independence to the user who could feel safer when travelling outside the home – something Hoover and others believed was important for practical as well as emotionally therapeutic reasons. Training programs around the cane quickly developed from 1945 onward and in 1952 and 1954, the US Veterans Administration released the two-part film The Long Cane, which demonstrated the uses of the cane and various tips on navigating residential and business environments, as well as discrimination.[9] The white cane continued to evolve over the next two decades as engineers within the United States, Canada and further afield worked to produce the most practical and effective design.

When the CNIB offered these devices to these eight blind men, it seems quite likely that they had these practical as well as social functions in mind. In the end, these technologies undoubtedly played a vital role in the resettlement process for the initial eight families – a number that grew by two more over the next year. The CNIB facilitated and helped organize the sponsorship of eight more families by other organizations over the next three years.



[1] Frank Lowe, “Blind D.P.’s To Build Lives Anew in Canada,” 18 January 1951, The Montreal Daily Star [news clipping], Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Believe 8 Blind Immigrants will be Asset to Dominion,” 22 January 1951, Toronto Daily Star  [news clipping], Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON; “Blind European Refugees Finding Safe Haven in Canada,” 12 January 1951, The Sault Daily Star [newslipping], Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON.  

[4] UN General Assembly, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 217 (III) A (Paris, 1948), Article 3 and 14.

[5] Memorandum, “Statement of expenditures for displaced persons,” from Mary A. Clark to J.C. Smith, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON.

[6] Mary A. Clark, CNIB Director of Welfare Services, to Amy Dagleish, Literature Committee Representative, United Nations Association in Canada, 5 January 1954, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 12, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON.

[7] David A. Gerber, Disabled Veterans in History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012), 32.

[8] Philip Strong, “The History of the White Cane,” 11 January 2009, Tennessee Council of the Blind, http://www.acb.org/tennessee/white_cane_history.html, accessed 16 June 2017; Frances A. Koestler, The Unseen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in the United States, 2nd ed. (New York: AFB Press, 2004), 625-636.

[9] Ibid.

Arrival, Resettlement and Assistive Technologies, 1951-1953