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a passionate fighter Maude Barlow

by Ann Farrell | January 2, 2003

The global water crisis is undeniable The Council of Canadians (COC) told Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a letter sent on the occasion of the 2007 International Women’s Day. The letter reiterates what COC’s national volunteer chairperson Maude Barlow wrote nearly 20 years ago in her book, Parcel of Rogues:

... They (environmentalists) also point out that the Athabasca venture alone will dump tons of dioxin into the river every day. The industry is responsible for half the waste water dumped in Canada every year.

The 60-year-old Barlow believes the “commodifying” of water – selling it in bottles, for instance – has been driven by corporate interests. She said this started with the privatization of municipal water services and was encouraged when water was declared a commodity or a good in trade agreements. It was talked about as a good rather than as a need, and with the founding of the World Water Council in 1997, the commodification of water was launched.

In January of 2007, Barlow complained to an international panel on water and human security held in Edmonton at the University of Alberta that there is now a movement afoot to establish an international water cartel, much like an oil cartel, “so that one day every single drop of water will be owned by a corporation.”

The water crisis is but one of Barlow’s fights on behalf of the environment. This crisis, she said, has worsened since the publication of her book, Blue Gold, in 2002.

Seventy five percent of India’s surface water, 80 per cent of China’s, the massive majority of South America’s and every single lake and river in Africa are now polluted beyond human use.

In Barlow's opinion, water – “the most precious commodity on earth” – should be ensured as a basic human right, and “a new global grassroots movement is fighting back. We believe water belongs to the Earth and all species, that it's a public trust and a human right, which should not be denied anyone for lack of ability to pay, and further should not be appropriated for profit.”

However, she added that all of us should be ashamed to know that Canada’s government is one of the few opposing the universal right to water at the United Nations:

This position was the policy of the Liberal government under [Jean] Chrétien and [Paul] Martin and has remained the position of the current [Stephen] Harper government – to avoid contradicting the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] which clearly names water as a good.

Barlow’s crusade on behalf of the world’s water – part of the COC’s position against globilization – fits in with the public’s view of where her organization stands, and equally is typical of what her corporate and political foes expect of her.

And yet her perspective developed only gradually from Barlow’s beginnings, typical of a woman born shortly after World War Two into comfortable, orderly circumstances.

The women’s movement was the trigger that shot her into new and uncharted waters. Now a leader of a global movement, Barlow nevertheless agrees with Michael Shuman that it is still in the hands of the individual, the small group, and the community to wrest power from the corporate giants and regain control over our lives.

Born in Toronto on Victoria Day, 1947, Barlow says that money was never much of a motivating factor in her family. She spent a happy childhood in Ottawa and on the east coast, in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. It was a childhood typical of the times, off to the United Church on Sundays and membership in the CGIT (Canadian Girls in Training). However, there were early political stirrings when she and a high school friend authored The Rabbitville Gazette, featuring Harry Hare (Liberal Lester Pearson) and Bunn Bunnifer (Conservative John Diefenbaker).

Her father, social worker Bill McGrath, didn’t believe in capital punishment. He also didn’t believe his children should indulge in wild parties and missed curfews. In fact, he was known to have stood on the doorstep of their Ottawa home in The Glebe five minutes ahead of Barlow’s agreed upon time of return.

It was Barlow’s mother, Flora (nee Wilkie), who led her daughter to recognize the wisdom of a comment made by Virginia Woolf: “We think back through our mothers if we are women.” As Mrs. McGrath once observed, she would never die because she would always live on in her daughter’s mind. The social concerns of her parents, Barlow says, were partly responsible for the choice she made later on to become a social activist.

Barlow was 40 years old when she was invited to join The Council of Canadians, following ten years of working for the Liberal Party, ultimately being nominated for a parliamentary seat in Ottawa Central, an endeavour in which she was not successful.

Married at 19, she dropped out of university, although she eventually finished her degree. She and her husband, Garnet Barlow, had two sons – Charlie and Billy (Will). The marriage didn’t last. As Barlow comments, “He was the first boy I fell in love with.” She later married Andrew Davis and remains good friends with her former husband.

The arrival of the feminist movement profoundly affected Barlow, and led her to question her beliefs, nurtured as they had been in times of traditional male-dominated relationships. In 1975 she became part of a group of women whose consulting firm worked to help advance the status of women at Kingston Prison for Women. In 1980, Barlow became director of the Ottawa office of Equal Opportunity for Women. During these years, she became involved in issues such as violence against women, pornography and sexist advertising.

To her surprise, Barlow was called for an interview with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1983. “I understand that if we don’t fight in the first 20 minutes, I'm going to offer you a job,” he said.

“Well then, I had better be pretty provocative, because I’m not sure I want to work for you,” was Barlow’s reply.

Even so, she started work as adviser on women’s issues in the Prime Minister’s Office, the first time such a position had existed. She admired Trudeau and appreciated the fact that not only did he encourage and support her, but also he didn’t interfere. When Trudeau resigned in 1984, he handed her the rose from his lapel. She continued briefly with John Turner, his successor, but by 1988 she felt her allegiance to the Liberal Party was waning. She was ready to respond to Mel Hurtig’s invitation to become chair of The Council of Canadians, of which he was founder.

The founding convention was held on Thanksgiving weekend in Ottawa, and by the time of the 1988 election there were more than 10,000 members.

The first fight was over of Canada’s energy sovereignty. Wrote Barlow in her autobiography:

For me, one of the most egregious aspects of the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement was that it wiped out the longstanding Canadian policy that sufficient supplies to serve Canadian needs had to be guaranteed before export grants were authorized. The FTA forbade charging higher prices for American consumers than for Canadian consumers and outlawed taxes on energy exports.

The trade deal led to the layoff of thousands of Canadian workers, Barlow reported:

  • 870 jobs — Inglis
  • 466 jobs — Hershey
  • 375 jobs — Mobil Oil
  • 700 jobs — de Havilland
  • 450 jobs — Burlington Carpet
  • 450 jobs — Eastman Kodak

There followed a spate of takeovers. The COC fought as many as possible, one of them being the purchase of Consolidated Bathurst where Jean Chrétien’s father, Wellie, had once worked and on whose board Chretien sat at that time. Barlow remonstrated with Maurice Sauvé, husband of then Governor General Jeanne Sauvé, that for a fee he had arranged the sale of this old Canadian company. “While she’s representing Canada, he’s off selling it,” she remarked.

Following Tory governments under Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell, Jean Chrétien became Liberal leader in 1991 and moved his left-leaning party to the right. At a 1991 convention, a speech by banker Peter Nicholson demonstrated Liberal thinking of the time. He outlined the direction in which the party was set to go: he said, “What seems beyond question is that the world has entered an era where the objectives of economic efficiency will hold sway virtually everywhere.” He praised the “logic of global investment” and added that, like it or not, “the world is in the thrall of global forces that cannot be defied by a relatively small, trade-dependent, and massively indebted country like Canada.”

In October 1997, Barlow travelled to Paris with a Canadian delegation invited by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It was made up of 29 powerful economies and the United States whose business community had been trying to secure a binding set of rules to protect its global investments. Citizen groups in developing countries had some success in resisting these corporate demands. In addition, citizen groups in Europe and North America argued that these corporations could use their power to harm environmental, labour and social standards in their societies.

Then followed the battle over the US-Canada proposal to form the global investment treaty, the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). The developing countries opposed the idea, perceiving it as a form of neo-colonialism. Under the proposed treaty, Canada would no longer be able to protect its natural resources, all of which would be prey to transnational corporations. Opposition extended from official organizations to grass roots groups. Publisher Jack Stoddart, concerned about the issue, asked Barlow and Tony Clarke (Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops) to get the information out in a book. MAI and the Threat to Canadian Sovereignty was subsequently published.

It was a battle that was eventually won, but fought relentlessly by both sides of the issue, one which brought Barlow permanent and wounding enemies. It also brought her the enthusiastic support and action of ordinary people worldwide who also deplored the MAI position. Barlow would quote her mother who commented about the vicious critics: “Serious people have serious enemies.” Protests were held across the country leading one wag to remark: “That Maude Barlow, she’s everywhere.”

And so it continued. Then came the summits, the protests, the barriers to keep out the protesters, riot police, water guns, even machine guns. In April 2001, summing up the Quebec summit, Barlow talked about what the summit leaders called a democracy clause which rules that any country not considered to be “democratic” would be excluded from the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas). As Barlow commented:

Hence, Cuba was not at the table, but Colombia, where labour leaders “disappear” at the rate of almost one a week, was. Our response, by the way, has been unequivocal: corporate-driven trade agreements already dictate our environmental and social policy. We certainly don’t want them redefining our notions of democracy.

More than 100 chapter representatives, 16 staff and eight board members of The Council of Canadians worked with thousands of Canadians and citizens of the Americas during the summit. As Barlow has said many times in different venues, with different words, but always with the same goal and the same zeal:

Once again, our leaders tried to meet behind closed doors to decide our collective future without us. Once again we said “No.” I can assure you our cry was heard around the world.

And now she and others are saying no to the privatization of water.

The Council of Canadians Water Campaign is online, and includes a toolkit for World Water Day on March 22.

more to consider

There are many things happening around us – globalization, liberalization of markets and trade, deregulation, cuts to social programmes, downsizing, privatizing and contracting out. Whatever else these big shifts are, they are women’s business.

New macro-economic policies rely on old assumptions: that women will be available as a low-paid, casualized labour force, and as unpaid workers. At their best, these policies perpetuate women’s economic inequality. At their worst, they deepen it.

— Shelagh Day, “The Indivisibility of Women’s Human Rights,” Canadian Woman Studies, p. 13, volume 20, number 3 | summer 2000

While we need all the Maude Barlows of the world, Maude Barlow would probably be the first to say that she needs us too – to tell our governments what we want, and to use our buying power to tell business what we want.

One thing that intriguing about movements and social change today is that interests and agendas are merging. We have the peace movement, the women’s movement, the environmental movement, the anti-globalization movement.

The progress each has made has not been enough. It seems that the movements are merging out of necessity. They need to merge to keep being effective.

What is emerging is competing views of most fundamental nature and design of our communities. There have always been debates about how our communities should function. But as we degrade the environment and chew our way through non-renewable resources, they are starting to feel closer to home, more pressing and immediate. Do you feel that? Does it feel hopeless or hopeful?

This feature was first published – and later revised in 2007 – on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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