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The Council of Canadians mourns the loss of Bob White

Barlow and White at the CBC debate on the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, October 1987.

The Council of Canadians mourns the passing of labour leader Bob White who died yesterday at the age of 81.

Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow says, “I mourn the loss of Bob White, a fighter for justice and a warrior for workers’ rights. We fought free trade together. He was a wonderful man. My hero.”

In her autobiography, Barlow wrote, “[In October 1987], I took part in a historic two-part debate on the Free Trade Agreement on CBC’s The Journal, pitting Bob White and me against Tom d’Aquino and Peter Lougheed. Bob and I were nervous and spent several days holed up with our advisers.”

She adds, “On the evening of the first debate, held in the Old City Hall in Toronto, the two teams were separated in different rooms until just before we were to go live to air. I was feeling distinctly not up to it [and suggested someone else should take my place]. In a very short time, I had come to like and admire Bob very much and was touched as he turned to me just before we left our room and said, ‘I’ve only got my grade ten, you know’.”

Barlow then notes, “Miracles of miracles, we did our side proud. Lougheed and d’Aquino, who had obviously not prepared, wrapped themselves in the flag and spoke in generalities about how they loved Canada, and free trade would be good for us. Bob and I got right into the technicalities of the agreement, arguing about secure market access, American omnibus legislation, proportional energy sharing, national treatment (which requires that a country not discriminate between foreign and domestic investors and companies), and the threat to jobs, social programs, and the environment.”

Today, CBC reports, “White was born in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland in 1935 and came to Canada in 1949 with his family, settling in Woodstock, Ont. He left school at 15 to work in a wood-working plant, and joined the United Auto Workers union in 1951. He became president of UAW Local 636 in 1959, and was later appointed an international representative for the union. In December 1984, with White at the helm, Canadian UAW members split from their U.S.-based parent union and formed the CAW. White was elected president of CAW in 1985, and re-elected in 1988 and 1991.”

That article adds, “In 1992, White was elected president of the the trade union umbrella group the Canadian Labour Congress. He was re-elected for two subsequent terms before retiring in 1999. He was also the first Canadian president of the OECD’s trade union advisory committee. White became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1990. He was granted honorary doctor of laws degrees from York University, the University of Toronto, the University of Windsor, and the University of Western Ontario, all in Ontario, and St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.”

The Council extends its condolences to Bob’s wife Marilyne, their children Todd, Shawn and Robyn, his sister Rachel and three grandchildren.

To see the National Film Board documentary Final Offer featuring White during the contract negotiations between the United Auto Workers and General Motors Corporation in 1984, please click here.

There is also this moving 15-minute video tribute that was produced in 2012.

To read the Unifor statement on White’s passing, click here.