Skip to content

Celebrating 35 years of Council of Canadians activism

On March 11, 1985, the Council of Canadians was formed as an organization to bring people together to create positive change. Today, 35 years later, we celebrate you, our supporters and members.

The Council of Canadians came together for “a new and better Canada with more and better jobs for Canadians, a higher standard of living for Canadians, and a sovereign Canada that plays an important role among the world community of nations.” Check out our very first press release.

Since the beginning, people in cities and communities across the country helped build the Council into Canada’s largest grassroots public advocacy organization. Whether it was ensuring trade agreements benefited people rather than corporations, protecting water from pollution and privatization, or fighting for governments to act urgently in the face of the climate crisis – from day one, Council of Canadians supporters have taken on seemingly insurmountable challenges for the common good.

In the beginning

The Council quickly established itself as a voice for economic sovereignty, protesting the sale of Canadian enterprises to offshore interests including de Havilland to Boeing, Prentice Hall to Gulf & Western, and West Kootenay Power and Light to Utilicorp of Kansas.

Mel Hurtig and Maude Barlow

Over the years, we confronted the overshadowing influence of the United States. In 1987, the Council organized a “Canada Summit” to coincide with U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Ottawa. The Pro-Canada Network (later the Action Canada Network) was created and its members taped the Canada Summit Declaration to the front door of Parliament Hill’s Centre Block.

Through battles over softwood lumber, the Great Lakes and water, the Council of Canadians has stood up to the power and influence of our southern neighbour. With globalization and a more connected world, the Council’s focus has evolved to consider Canada’s place in the global community and the interconnections of capitalism and corporate power.


Fighting for fair trade

Early on, trade and economic globalization took a central role in the Council’s work as we called for trade agreements to meet the needs of workers and families, and to protect the environment rather than corporate interests. In 1988, newly elected Council of Canadians Chairperson Maude Barlow, along with Canadian Auto Workers’ President Bob White, debated free trade with Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed and corporate lobbyist Tom d’Aquino on national television. Barlow and White raised the threats free trade would bring to Canada’s jobs, energy sovereignty and environmental protections – all concerns that have proved true over decades of free trade.

Through the 80s, the Council took on the fight against the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the subsequent North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Activists even attended the first NAFTA signing ceremony, holding up an American flag behind then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in a photo that was shared around the world. When the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), a new global investment treaty of unprecedented power, was introduced, the Council set off a firestorm of protest, launching a coast-to-coast inquiry into what values and policies Canadians want their government to put forward in international negotiations. We established MAI-free zones and helped build public awareness of the deal. The MAI was soundly defeated thanks in part to these efforts.

Bank Mergers

More recently, trade fights have centred on the lack of transparency and accountability of negotiations. Deals like the Canada-European Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) have been made behind closed doors with only the corporate elite having access to discussions. Governments are now rubber-stamping these deals with little to no input from the public. Economic globalization has opened markets and weakened regulations, making corporations huge profits, but it has come at the expense of our jobs and our ability to govern in the public interest.

The Council of Canadians has always fought for fair trade that puts people and the planet first. We challenge corporate influence in trade agreements and draw attention to how these deals stand in the way of us responding to the climate and water crises we now face.

Challenging power

The Council of Canadians believes in frontline activism. In 1999, the Council took part in the “Battle in Seattle,” a fight against the corporate-dominated World Trade Organization. As 50,000 protestors rallied in the streets, officials had to cancel opening ceremonies at a summit for trade officials and politicians from 134 countries.

A few years later, we joined a broad-based movement to counter the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) negotiations in Quebec City. The result was one of the biggest demonstrations ever held in Canada. Peaceful activists with thoughtful alternatives to free trade were met with tear gas, water-cannon spray and rubber bullets.

Quebec City

We fought against bank mergers – and won – a point that has helped Canada in times of economic downturn.

In 2007, we helped bring together thousands of people in Montebello, Quebec to protest the Security and Prosperity Partnership as then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper met behind closed doors with U.S. President George Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon. Our teach-in near Montebello drew more than 1,500 people from across Canada and around the world.

In 2010, Council activists joined with tens of thousands of people in Toronto to protest the G20 Summit. The large presence of riot police and excessive use of police force left many people questioning if our right to peaceful protest was being taken away.

More recently, Council of Canadians supporters from coast-to-coast-to-coast have joined in massive public demonstrations against the climate crisis, in support of students and their futures on a livable planet, and in support of meaningful government action to recognize and protect Indigenous rights. 

Even more resoundingly today we raise the question about who governments really represent – all of us, or Big Oil and other corporate elite?

Caring for each other and the environment

The Council acts to protect important social programs and our environment. Through our work for strengthened public health care and water, and against pipelines and other destructive industries, we are building a country where people can get the help and care they need, and our health, land, water and air are protected.

In 1996, the Council led a fight to protect Canada Pension Plan benefits, holding demonstrations outside of the federal finance minister’s office and delivering more than 100,000 petitions protesting the cuts. The government abandoned its plan to rollback seniors’ benefits.

The fight for stronger public health care and battle against governments that want to bring in privatization are a consistent theme throughout the Council’s history. In 2004, we gave the Romanow Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada the clear message that health care must be properly funded, expanded to include pharmacare and homecare, and protected from international trade agreements. Today, we continue the fight for expanded public health care with pharmacare, and work to stop the relentless privatization efforts of governments and greedy private clinic owners.

Romanow inquiry

We helped protect people from the harmful effects of genetically modified foods and Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone in milk. In 2004, bowing to pressure from consumers and organizations like ours, Monsanto abandoned its application to produce and sell genetically engineered wheat in Canada. Bovine growth hormone was also banned for use on cattle in Canada, keeping the genetically engineered hormone out of our milk supply.

Monsanto protest

For more than a decade, we have sounded the alarm about the Alberta and Saskatchewan-based tar sands, or “Canada’s Mordor,” as Maude Barlow described it. We raised concerns about unusually high cancer rates in nearby First Nations and warned about the toxic legacy that now exists.

In the face of the climate crisis, the fight against the tar sands has expanded to include stopping the infrastructure that will move the diluted bitumen to refineries and foreign markets. We launched campaigns to stop major pipeline projects such as the Energy East pipeline, the Keystone pipeline, the Trans Mountain pipeline and more. We celebrated the abandonment of the Energy East pipeline and more recently, the withdrawal of the application for Teck mine in Alberta. We  continue our push against harmful extractive industries such as fracking, offshore drilling and mining, calling on governments to do what is needed to avoid climate disaster.

Modor March

We also stood up for democracy –and put a spotlight on the election fraud that occurred in the 2011 federal election in court. Soon after, we fought the unfair election rules the Harper government attempted to pass which would have made it much more difficult for certain people to vote. We continue to campaign for a new, fairer electoral system and strengthened democratic rights.

Our future

To this day, the Council of Canadians, through our chapters, members and supporters, is active in communities and around the world, building a people-powered movement for the common good.

With the inspired leadership of Maude Barlow, now the Council’s Honorary Chairperson, we fight for the protection of safe, clean, accessible public water. We challenge global corporations like Nestlé that want to take our water, bottle it in plastic, and sell it for huge profits. We call for preservation of the Great Lakes, Canada’s largest source of freshwater, and encourage people to take action in their communities to safeguard public water through our Blue Communities Project, which has grown in the last decade into an international effort.

Through our solidarity work, we support the struggles of Indigenous Peoples, many whom continue to live without access to safe, clean water and disproportionately face the devastating health and environmental effects of extractive industries. We call on governments to respect and uphold their rights through true reconciliation efforts and the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In response to the urgency of the climate crisis, we are working to move our economy to a low-carbon future through a Green New Deal for Canada. A Green New Deal will ensure that transformation is carried out equitably, is rooted in climate justice, respects the rights of Indigenous Peoples, and creates over 1 million jobs in the process.

Through the years, the foundation of the Council’s work is the education and empowerment of people to fight for the values we all believe in. Our members, supporters and network of more than 50 active volunteer chapters create a powerful voice for social and environmental justice. We work to hold governments accountable and challenge the unbalanced power of corporations to promote positive social change in Canada and the world.

On this day, marking our 35th anniversary, we extend our deep gratitude to all of you. Thank you for joining us and for making a better Canada possible.