The International Refugee Organization and the CNIB, 1946- 1950

Passenger ship with International Refugee Organization banner, c.1951

Passenger ship with International Refugee Organization banner, c.1951, The Australian National Maritime Museum, ANMS0214[045], Wiki Commons

People with disabilities were among the millions of people displaced by the violence and ongoing political turmoil of the Second World War and its aftermath, a fact recognized by The International Refugee Organization (IRO). The IRO was an intergovernmental agency established in 1946 to address the massive crisis of displaced peoples coming out of Europe after the Second World War. Governments had faced forced migrations in the past, and the typical approach had been to repatriate individuals back to where they had come once hostilities had ceased, even if against their will. But the IRO emerged from the growing international conviction that people had a right to flee violence and find safe haven away from home – a sentiment that would eventually find a place within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The formation of the IRO, in turn, led to a more formal and uniform recognition of refugee as a legitimate status of an individual, based on “persecution or fear of persecution” whether it be due to one’s race, faith, nationality or political affiliation.[1] Initially imagined to be a short-term organization, the IRO later transformed into the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that exists to this day.[2]   

In the spring of 1950, the IRO reached out to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), a now thirty-year old organization, to see if they might assist in helping resettle displaced people who were blind within Canada. IRO statistics as of February 1950 calculated that they were 419 people accounted for who were blind and partially sighted still living in British administered camps across Germany, Austria and Italy five years after the war had come to an end. Up to that time, Norway had been the only country that expressed willingness to take in any of these individuals, agreeing to resettle 100 individuals and up to 100 of their family members. The IRO offered to provide a grant of $650.00 for each individual who was blind and $250.00 for each family member.[3]  The CNIB agreed, with the help of the IRO and the American Foundation for Overseas Blind in Paris, France, to help resettle ten individuals and their dependants.[4] To begin the long process of resettlement, the first step of the IRO and CNIB was to approach Canadian Immigration in May 1950, as people who were blind were typically considered inadmissible under existing Canadian immigration legislation and could only come to Canada if afforded “special action” on the part of official authorities.[5]

In May 1950, Hector Allard, Head of the IRO Quebec Office, wrote to Edwin Baker, Managing Director of the CNIB with whom he had previously corresponded about resettlement. Allard reflected on a meeting he had a few days before with the Deputy Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, reporting back “the Canadian Immigration authorities are anxious to have  … assurance that blind displaced persons and their dependants brought into Canada by the Institute will not become public charges.” To quell fears that these individuals would impose undue strain on health or social services, Allard assured Fortier that these people would be duly supported by the CNIB and, perhaps most importantly, would be carefully selected so as to “be in a position to be at least partly self-dependant because of their skills.”[6]  What this meant was that, in order to appease the state, individuals would not be assessed or selected on need, but on their perceived ability to be productive and compliant workers, able to contribute actively to the growing postwar economy and infrastructure. To prove they would do so, these selected individuals would have to undergo intense scrutiny, including a series of medical exams utilizing X-rays and other technical monitoring systems.    



[1] Gil Loescher, Alexander Betts, James Milner, UNHCR: The Politics and Practice of Refugee Protection, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), 11-12.

[2] UNHCR, “History of the UNHCR,” http://www.unhcr.org/history-of-unhcr.html, accessed 1 June 2017.

[3] Letter of Myer Cohen, IRO Assistant Director General, to J. Hector Allard, Chief of Mission, IRO Quebec Office, 14 April 1950, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON; Letter of J. Hector Allard to Edwin Baker, CNIB Managing Director, 24 April 1950, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON.

[4] Letter of Edwin A. Baker to Eric Boulter, Director of American Foundation for Overseas Blind, 25 April 1950, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON.

[5] Letter of J. Hector Allard to Col. Laval Fortier, Deputy Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Ottawa, 12 May 1950, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON.

[6] Letter of J. Hector Allard to Edwin Baker, 13 May 1950, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON.