Remembering the Halifax Explosion: How volunteers helped hundreds see beyond vision loss

12/1/2016

​(HALIFAX, NS – Dec. 1, 2016) On December 6, 1917, one of the most catastrophic events in Canadian history struck the shores of Nova Scotia. But few Canadians realize that the Halifax Explosion sparked an outpouring of community support for survivors who were blind or partially sighted and served as a catalyst for the formation of one of Canada’s oldest charities, CNIB.

When the SS Mont Blanc accidentally collided with the SS Imo in Halifax Harbour on that fateful December morning, hundreds gathered along the shorelines, while others watched from their windows, to witness the fiery aftermath.

What they didn’t realize was that the Mont Blanc was fully loaded with wartime explosives, and it was ready to blow.

Twenty-four minutes later, the wreckage exploded – causing a tsunami in the harbour and a massive flash that leveled buildings for kilometres around. It was the largest manmade accidental explosion the world had ever seen.

Two thousand people were killed, and a further 9,000 injured – more than 1,000 of whom sustained serious eye injuries from flying glass and debris, which left them blind or with significant vision loss. A staggering 250 eye removals were performed over a period of two weeks following the explosion, an additional 206 survivors had lost one eye and required monitoring to ensure they retained their vision in the other, and 260 more people had glass embedded in their eyes.

Coupled with the onslaught of veterans returning home blind after World War I, the explosion meant there were suddenly more Nova Scotians living with blindness or partial sight than ever before.

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind – then just a small crew of volunteers – set to work helping the survivors improve living and social conditions by teaching skills, such as knitting, reading braille, using washing machines, bread mixers and other domestic products to make life with vision loss easier.

Today, CNIB is still the primary provider of vision rehabilitation in Nova Scotia, delivering services right where clients need them – over the phone, online, or in clients’ own homes, communities and at CNIB centres in Halifax and Sydney.

“Ninety-nine years later, CNIB is continuing our commitment to helping Nova Scotians deal with the emotional and social side of vision loss, while building the skills to do everyday tasks with confidence,” said Crystal Legere, CNIB’s manager of vision rehabilitation services in Nova Scotia.

With services ranging from independent living, which teaches those who are blind or partially sighted the skills and techniques needed to carry out everyday activities, to orientation and mobility instruction which teaches people how to travel safely and independently in their home, community and workplace, CNIB is changing what it means to be blind today.

Following the disaster, various local women’s groups realized the great need for social inclusion by arranging outings, including picnics, boat rides and musical evenings for individuals in the community who were recently blinded, and their families.

CNIB and community volunteers also hosted classes and social gatherings, where survivors with vision loss could discuss challenges, overcome fears and celebrate achievements.

“In 2016, Nova Scotia is home to more than 13,000 people who are blind or partially sighted – and it is more important than ever that CNIB continue delivering programs and services that help Nova Scotians with vision loss gain the confidence and skills to live full and active lives,” added Legere. “We do so by providing recreational programs such as an art night where clients can enjoy an evening of painting, sculpting and socializing and a family support program that provides information to family members on how they can best support loved ones who are blind or partially sighted.”

“As we commemorate the 99th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, CNIB remembers the hard work and generosity of volunteers who helped hundreds of survivors to see beyond vision loss,” said Legere.

About CNIB

Established in 1918, CNIB provided food, clothing, residences and library services to blinded veterans and other Canadians living with vision loss. Our organization has evolved over the last 98 years; in addition to charitable programs – such as education, advocacy, research and client support – CNIB has become the primary provider of vision rehabilitation in Nova Scotia.

CNIB’s vision rehabilitation programs and services reduce the personal, social and economic costs of vision loss, while improving the overall health and wellbeing of individuals who are blind or partially sighted. CNIB helps individuals to see beyond vision loss and lead full, active lives. Whether that means learning to cook again after a loss of sight, going back to school, maintaining employment, travelling safely and independently with a white cane or getting support to adjust to the emotional and social impact of vision loss.

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Media contact:

Hannah Ghosn
Communications Coordinator, CNIB
(902) 453-1480 ext. 5721
hannah.ghosn@cnib.ca

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