Canadian National Institute for the Blind: Early Beginnings, c.1918

A slate and stylus from the CNIB

CNIB Slate & Stylus

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) was an organization founded in 1918 for the purpose of providing technical, educational and social supports for people who were blind or partially sighted. As this exhibit will illustrate, it continues to this day and plays a fundamental role in helping people navigate a world in which sight is privileged.

The CNIB was the product of long-standing activism on the part of people who were blind or partially sighted. The organization emerged from the Canadian Free Library for the Blind (CFLB), founded by Edgar B.F. Robinson.  In 1916, CFLB changed its name to the Canadian National Library for the Blind (CNLB). The CNLB was significant as it was one of the first institutions to be founded and administered by and for people who were blind or partially sighted in Ontario. Beginning as a lending library, it became a powerful advocate in the province and beyond.[1] By 1917, CNLB board members such as Edwin Baker, Sherman Charles Swift and Charles Watty Carruthers began discussing the need for an organization that was truly national in focus. In 1918, these men and others would lay the foundation for the creation of the CNIB.[2]  

Their efforts corresponded to the growing needs of veterans returning home who had lost their sight on the battlefields in Europe after the First World War. As historians have noted, the period directly following WWI was a “watershed” moment, with the government of Canada directing more funds than ever before towards the rehabilitation and re-training of returning soldiers who were blind or partially sighted. Ranging from pensions and “civil re-establishment schemes” to investing in infrastructure that would provide training, education and employment for the war-wounded, these measures were undoubtedly “precedent setting”.[3]  

Some of this federal money went directly to the CNIB, who used the income to fund re-training programs. Its most elaborate project in this vein was the operations of Pearson Hall in Toronto. Built initially for famous Canadian politician George Brown, this mansion was leased by the CNIB in 1918 and converted into a residence and re-training facilities for blinded veterans.[4]

Sustained activism on the part of veterans led to these provisions becoming “an entrenched right, not a form of charity”.[5] This radical shift in perspective would profoundly affect the CNIB and its continued growth. At first veterans received far more support than civilians, creating “two classes of clients within the CNIB.” Civilian activism gradually shifted this two-tier approach, however and eventually the CNIB provided civilians with an equal level of access to programs, facilities and technologies as veterans.[6]

[1] Ernst P. Hamm, “Printing, Patronage and Paternalism: Technological Choice and the Introduction of Braille at the Ontario Institution for the Blind,” National Museum of Science and Technology (July 1987), 42-45. 

[2] Euclid Herie, Journey to Independence: Blindness ~ The Canadian Story (Toronto: The Dundurn Group, 2005), 31-47.

[3] Serge Marc Durflinger, Veterans with a Vision: Canada’s War Blinded in Peace and War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 4-6.

[4] Ibid., 57-63.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Herie, 56-57.

[7] Ibid., 201.

Canadian National Institute for the Blind: Early Beginnings, c.1918