Edwin A. Baker (1893-1968), affectionately known as "The Colonel," was one of the 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
Baker returned to Canada in 1916, after undergoing rehabilitation at St. Dunstan’s home in England, 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 helped found CNIB, along with six other Library volunteers, 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.
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.
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. 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, Canadian Corps Association. He was vice-president and later secretary of the Sir Arthur Pearson Association of War Blinded.
Awards and honours
Lieutenant-Colonel 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. In 1967, he was appointed Companion of the Order of Canada for outstanding merit of the highest degree.
Edwin A. Baker passed away on April 7, 1968.
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."