Convention Report: ‘Breaking the Mold’ 2014 Convention – May 23 – 25, 2014

By Mary Ellen Gabias, President

It’s Friday evening and the sounds of seabirds calling and waves lapping on the shore drift through my open window, along with the scents of flowers and of the sea. The place is Bowen Island Lodge and the event is the 2014 convention of the Canadian Federation of the Blind.

Longtime Federationists and new invitees arrived by ferry and water taxi in time for the 3:30 technology information and sharing session. Highly technically skilled people talked to one another in codes unintelligible to the rest of us. We basic information seekers asked, “What does it do? How long will it take me to learn how?”

Those uninterested in learning what has fallen from the Apple Corporation tree lately, or the relative merits of WindowEyes and NVDA, strolled along the beach or took the short but invigorating walk to the village or hung out on the patio with friends.

Later, after a gourmet dinner that set the pattern for the entire weekend, Donna Hudon’s carefully prepared icebreakers proved to be unnecessary. Conventioneers had already broken the ice very well. A few hearty souls headed for the cove to kayak. Others performed music in the all-purpose room or sat around a snapping fire intent on solving as many of the world’s problems as possible in a few short hours. The Lodge’s hot tub also beckoned.

Despite reports of very late nights for some in attendance, the crowd was alert and enthusiastic when president, Mary Ellen Gabias, called the convention to order at 9:00 Saturday morning. The sessions were ably recorded by Sky Mundell.

After introductions and announcements, Mary Ellen delivered the convention keynote speech, “Breaking the Mold: From Clienthood to Citizenship.”

We were delighted to hear from Alex Jurgensen, vice president of the Bowen Camp Society for the Visually Impaired, about how a group of determined blind individuals are reviving and improving upon the adult, youth, and children’s camps that had been in danger of oblivion when CNIB sold the Bowen Island Lodge. We thank Alex for his warm hospitality and logistical support throughout the weekend.

Gary Wunder, editor of the “Braille Monitor,” representing Dr. Maurer and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), gave the first of his three outstanding presentations.

Human rights advocacy is central to the activity of the CFB, and few are more determined and skilled in the practical effort of dealing with human rights tribunals than Graeme McCreath. No wonder that the human rights panel, chaired by Graeme, provided both inspiration and practical tips. Oriano Belusic and Elizabeth Lalonde shared their personal experiences. Juliana Dalley of CLAS explained the laws underpinning provincial and federal human rights procedures.

The Pacific Training Centre for the Blind operates the Blind People in Charge program. Elizabeth Lalonde, Centre director, Ashley Charlton and Danielle Fernandez, staff members, — as well as program participants Erin Lacharity, Heidi Propp, Sky Mundell, Aedan Staddon, and Miriam Youssefi, touched everyone deeply as they told how what they are learning in the program is making Federation philosophy come alive in their lives.

Our luncheon speaker, Allan Carlson of the British Columbia Libraries Branch, talked about the National Network for Equitable Library Services – Then and Now. He told of the development of this new library service, the first in the world using this integrated public library-based organizational structure. It is refreshing to hear government officials acknowledge and warmly welcome participation by blind individuals and their organizations. In acknowledgement of the pioneering work in developing the NNELS concept and structure, CFB awarded Certificates of Excellence to Allan; Jacqueline Van Dyk, former head of the Libraries Branch and current Director of the North Vancouver Public Library; Trevor Surgenor, head of the provincial library of Manitoba; Ben Hyman, Director of the BC Libraries Co-op, the entity housing NNELS and overseeing its day-to-day operations; and Maryann Kempthorne, Access & Learning Specialist at the Co-op, who has (in her own words) midwifed the outreach, collection development, and library patron beta testing for the project.

Finding work and adapting to the rapidly changing employment market is challenging for everyone – blind job seekers face additional significant challenges. Oriano Belusic, CFB first vice president and a successful entrepreneur, told of his successes and setbacks and interviewed Alex Jurgensen and Danielle Fernandez about their personal career paths. Gary Wunder followed up with a hard hitting but compassionate and humorous outline of the skills and attitudes we must have to face change, both when looking for work and on the job.

Johnny Tai is a counsellor by day and a martial arts fighter and instructor by night. In a funny, yet very touching, presentation, Johnny shared many life lessons. Among them, “As you stop thinking of yourself as a victim, you teach others to stop thinking of you as a victim.”

Formal convention sessions adjourned, but the learning and sharing intensified. Maryann Kempthorne showed individuals how to connect with NNELS and use the service. Johnny Tai taught introductions to martial arts to interested individuals. Groups hiked the island or went shopping in the intriguing boutiques in the village. Others soaked in the sun walking on the ocean beach.

We were all back together to enjoy a relaxed but festive banquet. Gus Thorn, our “loud and proud” door prize and auction chairman, was kept busy handing out loot and encouraging us to raise bids on unique items donated by members. Tepi Hughes ran a fifty-fifty raffle that raised much needed cash. The highlight of the banquet, without question, was the address given by Gary Wunder. Gary’s deeply personal and moving account of the joys and problems of growing up as a blind child hit close to home for many of us. We left the banquet feeling a deep sense of kinship, knowing that we share more than we sometimes realize.

At the AGM on Sunday morning, the following executive was elected:

Mary Ellen Gabias, president;
Oriano Belusic, first vice president (elected in 2013);
Paul Gabias, second vice president;
Heidi Propp, secretary;
Graeme McCreath, treasurer;
Donna Hudon, member-at-large;
And Elizabeth Lalonde, past president (continuing position.)

Conventioneers headed for the ferry feeling exhilarated and exhausted. We all look forward to getting together for the next CFB convention. In the meantime, we’re invigorated to do the work that lies ahead.

A special thank you to our sponsors:
Victoria Imperial Lions Club
Knights of Columbus, Father De Lestre Council, Kelowna, B.C.
Island Savings Credit Union, Victoria, B.C.
And, thank you to individual donors and businesses who generously contributed to our convention.