Cataclysmic events at home and abroad opened a new chapter for Canadians with vision loss during the 20th century’s second decade. The struggles of wounded First World War veterans and the horrific eye-related injuries suffered in the 1917 Halifax Explosion highlighted the need for modern approaches to helping blind Canadians.
Before 1914, Canada had little reason to create policy for treatment of wounded veterans. The First World War changed that. By the war’s end, nearly 620,000 Canadians, out of a 1914 population of 7.8 million, enlisted for service overseas. Those who returned home, wounded or permanently weakened by disease or gas attacks, as many thousands were, faced dreary prospects. CNIB historian Euclid Herie notes that “unemployment and poverty were almost guaranteed for war-blinded servicemen without resources or independent means.”
Future CNIB leader Edwin Albert Baker lost his sight at Ypres in 1915. He and other veterans who were treated at St. Dunstan’s Hostel in London brought home to Canada a revolutionary rehabilitation philosophy, and the confidence to advocate for change. Their work, and the ongoing activities of the Canadian Free Library for the Blind, set the stage for the creation of CNIB in 1918.