Leo Gerard, giant of international labour movement, appointed Companion of the Order of Canada
OTTAWA – Leo W. Gerard, the product of a hard-scrabble northern Ontario mining town who as International President of the United Steelworkers union (USW) became one of the globe’s most indomitable labour leaders, today received his country’s highest civilian honour – Companion of the Order of Canada. Gerard’s appointment was announced today by the office of Governor General Mary Simon, who bestows the Order of Canada. Gerard is being recognized “for his vast and influential work in labour advocacy, notably as the seventh International President of the United Steelworkers union,” the Governor General’s announcement states. Companion of the Order of Canada is the highest of the three levels of the Order of Canada. It is awarded for “outstanding achievement and merit of the highest degree, especially in service to Canada or to humanity at large.”
Along with others appointed today to the Order of Canada, Gerard will be invited by the Governor General to attend an investiture ceremony at a later date to receive his insignia.
“I am honoured and overwhelmed to be appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada,” Gerard, 76, who retired in 2019 after serving 18 years as USW International President, said in a statement released today. “I want to acknowledge the undeniable fact that this tremendous honour deserves to be shared by so many others, from my family to the members of my great union, to the countless other labour, social justice and political activists whom I was privileged to work alongside for five decades,” he added. “Leo Gerard’s life mission has been to improve the working and living standards of workers in Canada, the United States and around the world,” said Marty Warren, USW National Director for Canada.
“His impact on the lives of so many is indisputable, and it is entirely fitting that his achievements are being recognized by his appointment as a Companion of the Order of Canada,” Warren said. Under Gerard’s leadership, the USW grew as a force to be reckoned with at bargaining tables and in politics. A determined and irrepressible voice for working people everywhere, he was widely sought out as a media commentator on labour, economic, political and trade issues. Gerard’s priorities as USW International President included expanding the union’s coalitions within the global labour movement. He championed greater international labour alliances to combat the forces of globalization, arguing Canadian and American workers would benefit as they helped to raise living standards and improve workers’ rights worldwide. “Leo’s abilities to understand, forcefully represent and embody the values and culture of working people and to be able to communicate and be understood by those at the highest echelons of power are among his most unique and admirable qualities,” said longtime friend Ken Neumann, who served 18 years as USW National Director for Canada, retiring in 2022. In 2008, the USW joined Unite the Union in the U.K. and Ireland to form Workers Uniting, the largest global union with 3.4 million members. The USW also helped establish a new international labour federation, IndustriALL, which now represents 50 million workers in 140 countries.
Gerard also spearheaded efforts to make the labour movement a partner with environmental organizations, advocating for sustainable industry and environmental solutions that protect and create family-supporting jobs with the benefits of union representation. He helped establish the BlueGreen Alliance coalition in the U.S. in 2006, followed by the USW’s co-founding of Blue Green Canada in 2008. Background: Gerard was born in Lively, Ont., a Sudbury-area community dominated at the time by mining giant Inco Ltd. Following in the footsteps of his father, a union organizer, he went to work for Inco at age 18. He soon got involved in United Steelworkers Local 6500, beginning a meteoric rise up the union’s leadership ladder. After reaching the position of chief steward of his 7,000-member local union, Gerard’s leadership abilities prompted the USW to hire him to a staff job in 1977. He went on to become the union’s Ontario Director, Canadian National Director and then International Secretary-Treasurer, leading to his installation as International President in 2001, a position he held through multiple elections over 18 years. Gerard was the second Canadian to reach the Steelworkers union’s top job, following his mentor Lynn Williams, who served as USW International President from 1983 to 1994, and who was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2005.
Leading North America’s largest industrial union, with 1.2 million members at its height, Gerard had a profound impact on workplace health and safety, gender equality, decent pay, pensions, global labour rights and solidarity, and trade and social justice issues.