Our Founders

In 1918, CNIB was founded by a group of seven men – several of whom were blind or served in the military – who recognized the demand for support for the many veterans with vision loss returning from World War I. Among them were a solicitor, two doctors, an electrical engineer, an insurance professional, an accomplished fundraiser and a librarian who spoke seven languages.

All were passionate about the rights of people with vision loss and believed strongly that Canadians without sight should be able to shape their own destiny, speak for themselves and be heard. Learn more about our founders…​

Colonel Edwin A. Baker

Colonel Edwin A. Baker, CNIB founder Edwin A. Baker (1893-1968), affectionately known as "The Colonel", was one of the key founders of CNIB, and served as its managing director from 1920 until 1962.

Born on a farm near Kingston, Ontario, Baker grew up where his United Empire Loyalist forefathers had settled. He attended public school and high school nearby and went on to Queen's University to study engineering. He obtained his Bachelor of Science Degree as an electrical engineer in 1914, just in time to enlist with the Sixth Field Company, Canadian Engineers, and serve in World War I. In 1915, he was wounded at Mount Kemmel, France, and lost the sight in both his eyes.

After the war: a new way of life

After undergoing rehabilitation at St. Dunstan's home in England, Baker returned to Canada in 1916 to rebuild his life as a person living with vision loss. It was a considerable challenge, as there were few social services available at the time, and people with vision loss tended to be dependent on their families.

Undaunted, Baker obtained a position at the Ontario Hydro-Electric Power Commission. In his spare time, he joined the board of the Canadian Free Library for the Blind as a volunteer and, along with six other library volunteers, founded CNIB in 1918. He served as vice president of its first National Council, oversaw the After Care and Training program for Canadian servicemen who had been blinded in the war, and in 1920, he became CNIB's general secretary.

Growing CNIB

From a staff of three and a handful of volunteers, Baker built the organization to include more than 50 offices from coast to coast. He sponsored ophthalmic surveys and medical aid for native Canadians in the far north; helped organize the first mass survey of school children in Toronto, which led to the establishment of classes for people with vision loss; and oversaw the first national survey of the incidence and causes of vision loss in Canada.

Other pursuits

Baker's interests extended far beyond his own organization. He served as president of the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind (now known as the World Blind Union) for three terms, and was, for many years, the only lay member of the Canadian Ophthalmological Society. He was a member of the National Advisory Council on the Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons for 10 years and was involved in the formation of the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind in London, England. As a veteran of World War I, Edwin Baker continued to actively participate in military and veterans' affairs long after the war ended. He was honorary chairman of the National Council of Veterans Associations in Canada; honorary president of the War Pensioners of Canada; a life member of the Canadian Legion and the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada; and honorary dominion president of the Canadian Corps Association. He was also vice president and later secretary of the Sir Arthur Pearson Association of War Blinded.

Awards and honours

Baker received many honours in recognition of his work. In 1935, he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. In 1938, the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel was conferred upon him. In the same year, Queen's University made him an Honorary Doctor of Laws, and in 1945 he received the same degree from the University of Toronto. He received meritorious awards for outstanding service from the War Amputations of Canada and three American associations for the blind. He also received Citizen of the Year awards from several Canadian cities.

In 1966, he was presented with the World Veterans' Federation Trophy in recognition of distinguished service for the disabled before being appointed Companion of the Order of Canada for outstanding merit of the highest degree the next year.

Edwin A. Baker passed away on April 7, 1968.

Kind words

In his sermon at the funeral service, the Reverend John Neal of Beulah United Church, Collins Bay, said, "The Colonel learned in life…how to turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones. His life has displayed to us the great things that can be done with affliction when it is faced with courage and determination. We are richer because he passed our way."

In a special tribute, A.N. Magill, Managing Director of CNIB from 1962 to 1973, said, "Colonel Baker won the admiration, respect and affection of thousands, both blind and sighted, across Canada, the United States and Europe. Although he was an international leader of the blind, he was also at home in his basement workshop or at a simple gathering with friends and neighbours. Throughout my friendship with him, which extended over 40 years, I think an outstanding quality was his great faith in the ability of blind people."

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Charles Carruthers

Charles Carruthers, CNIB founderDr. Charles Carruthers was born in Avening, Ontario, in 1886. He lost his sight when he was five years old due to an undiagnosed illness. Dr. Carruthers attended the Ontario School for the Blind from age five to 14 before moving on to Woodstock College, Pickering College and the University of Toronto where he earned a BA. He then went on to qualify for the Bar at Osgoode Hall, but instead of pursuing law, became interested in osteopathy and attended a School of Osteopathy in Iowa. Carruthers returned to Toronto and set up a practice that he ran for more than 40 years.

Dr. Carruthers generously dedicated his time to teaching braille to World War I veterans who returned home without vision. He served as president of the Canadian National Library for the Blind at the time of its amalgamation with the CNIB National Library. He was also President of the International Association of Blind Osteopaths and, in 1967, he was awarded the Canadian Centennial Medal. Dr. Carruthers was the last surviving founder of CNIB and died in 1976 at the age of 90.

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Dr. Charles Dickson

Dr. Charles Dickson, CNIB founderDr. Charles Dickson was born in Kingston, Ontario in 1858 and was the oldest of CNIB's founders. A graduate of Queen's University, he had an illustrious medical career as a pioneer in X-ray technology and was head of that department in Toronto General Hospital. He lost his sight in 1908, at age 50, as a result of an early X-ray experiment that went wrong.

Dr. Dickson served as the first president of CNIB. He was also awarded the King's Medal and was made a Knight of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem for founding the Canadian branch of the St. John's Ambulance. Dr. Dickson died in 1938 while serving as vice president of CNIB.

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George Plaxton

George Plaxton, CNIB founderOne of CNIB's only two sighted founders, George Gordon Plaxton served as an honorary solicitor to CNIB, providing his legal services on a pro bono basis. Plaxton crafted CNIB's articles for incorporation.

Within a year of CNIB's incorporation, Plaxton returned to his law practice and maintained a limited relationship with the new national organization he helped to create.

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​Sherman Swift

Sherman Swift, CNIB founder Sherman Charles Swift was born in 1873 in Petrolia, Ontario, and lost his sight as a young boy in a gunpowder explosion. Swift attended the Ontario School for the Blind in Brantford and earned an honours BA from McGill University in 1907, majoring in modern languages.

Swift was appointed librarian of the Free Library for the Blind in 1911. He earned his master's degree at the Faculty of Education at the University of Toronto. Swift spoke seven languages fluently and in 1908 became the first qualified blind person to apply for a teaching certificate. Sherman Swift was refused the certificate that time, but was granted the certificate 15 years later. He was the author of many unpublished poems and co-author of "The Voyages of Jacques Cartier in Prose and Verse" (1934). As a founder of CNIB, he was described as a force to be reckoned with.

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Alexander Viets

Alexander Viets, CNIB founderAlexander Griswold Viets was born in Digby, Nova Scotia, in 1878. In 1914, he enlisted in the army in Calgary. Blinded by a mortar explosion in France early in the First World War, Viets was sent to St. Dunstan's for rehabilitation where he shared a room with Edwin Baker and Clutha MacKenzie, both of whom went on to become well known for their work with people with vision loss in New Zealand and Asia.

Viets was the first soldier blinded in the war to return to Canada from St. Dunstan's. He went home to Nova Scotia, but was encouraged by Edwin Baker to move to Toronto in 1916, where he was employed by the Imperial Life Assurance Company of Canada. Viets also joined the board of the Canadian National Library for the Blind later that same year. Alexander Viets later served as Vice President of CNIB and was awarded the King's Medal in 1937. He was described by others as a quiet and thoughtful contributor to the new organization, with a good head for business. He died at age 71.

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Lewis Wood

Lewis Wood, CNIB founder Lewis Wood was a Halifax native who lived in New York for some time and relocated to Toronto in the early 1900s. He and his brother constructed the original Royal Bank building in Toronto, one of the first skyscrapers to be built in Canada. Lewis Wood and Edwin Baker became friends through a mutual acquaintance and as a result, Wood became involved in issues concerning people with vision loss.

In January of 1917, Edwin Baker suggested that Wood head the finance committee of the Free Library for the Blind. Wood assisted the library in securing financial assistance and actively obtained donations from a wide circle of business acquaintances for CNIB over the years.

Wood was president of the National Council for 34 years, from 1918 to 1952. He was described as having a powerful, if quiet, influence on CNIB's founding, and his leadership as a senior volunteer at CNIB was valued greatly. He was also a mentor and confidant to Edwin Baker, and the two regularly travelled together on CNIB business.