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Our Story

Since 1985, the Council of Canadians has been a home for people who believe a better Canada is not only possible, but necessary. The Council’s work has always been built on a strong foundation of timely and strategic campaigns for the values, social programs and progressive policies we all believe in. 

We celebrate our strong 38-year history and look forward to an even brighter future with the enduring support of our members, supporters and chapter activists. 

The beginning

Founded on March 11, 1985 by Mel Hurtig and a group of prominent Canadians including Maude Barlow, Tommy Douglas, Margaret Atwood, Farley Mowat, David Suzuki and many others, the Council’s goals were: “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.” Read our first press release.

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. 

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. 

Almost two decades later, the Council revisited Canada-U.S. relations, launching its Citizens’ Inquiry on Canada-U.S. Relations to counter an all-out push by the Canadian business elite to promote “deep integration” with the United States. Deep integration included a common market and border, a guaranteed and uninterrupted supply of energy to the U.S., and participation in George W. Bush’s defence and security initiatives. The efforts culminated in the so-called Security and Prosperity Partnership, which, following several years of strong campaigning, was ultimately defeated. 

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 interconnectedness of capitalism and corporate power.

Maude Barlow

Maude Barlow is a founding member of the Council of Canadians, where she served as the board chairperson for over three decades. She chairs the board of Washington-based Food and Water Watch, serves on the Board of Advisors to the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, was a founding member of the San Francisco–based International Forum on Globalization, and was a Councillor with the Hamburg-based World Future Council. She is the Chancellor of Brescia University College at Western University.

Maude is the recipient of 16 honorary doctorates as well as many awards, including the 2005 Right Livelihood Award (known as the “Alternative Nobel”), the 2005 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellowship Award, the Citation of Lifetime Achievement at the 2008 Canadian Environment Awards, the 2009 Earth Day Canada Outstanding Environmental Achievement Award, the 2009 Planet in Focus Eco Hero Award, and the 2011 EarthCare Award, the highest international honour of the Sierra Club (US).

From 2008–2009, she served as Senior Advisor on Water to the 63rd President of the United Nations General Assembly and was a leader in the campaign to have water recognized as a human right by the UN. She is also the author of dozens of reports, as well as 20 books, including her latest, Boiling Point: Government Neglect, Corporate Abuse, and Canada’s Water Crisis; and Whose Water is it Anyway? Taking water protection into public hands; and Still Hopeful: Lessons from a Lifetime of Activism.

Fight 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 flashed around the world. 

Bank mergers billboard

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.

MAI Inquiry

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 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.

Peace March

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 is one of the biggest demonstrations ever held in Canada. Activists with thoughtful alternatives to free trade were met with tear gas, water-cannon spray and rubber bullets.

Quebec City
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 is being taken away.

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

Over the past 35 years the Council has acted to protect important social programs and our environment. Through our work for health care and water, and against pipelines and other destructive industries, we are building towards 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 business owners.

Romanow inquiry
Roy Romanow

Another victory came when 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 demonstration

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 describes 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.

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 some people to vote. We continue to campaign for a new, fairer electoral system and strengthened democratic rights. 

Modor March

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.

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 for all 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.

Thank you for joining us.