TORONTO -- Two years after its unsuccessful campaign to prevent a free-trade agreement with the United States, an implacable group of sovereignty crusaders is back with renewed zeal and a characteristically ambitious agenda.

The Council of Canadians is seeking to scuttle the creation of a proposed North American trade zone larger than the European Community, depose Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's Conservative Party government and abrogate the original U.S.-Canada free-trade deal.

"We want our country back. As long as the free-trade agreement is in effect, no future {Canadian} government will be able to determine the fate of this country," said Maude Barlow, the council's national chairwoman.

The catalyst for the council's high-profile revival was Ottawa's decision last month to participate in free-trade negotiations with the United States and Mexico for the creation of a continental market with 360 million buyers.

Barlow and other leaders of the 20,000-strong council contend that the North American trade zone will draw Canada deeper into a restructuring of its economy to suit U.S. corporate interests, threaten the country's natural resources and dilute its commitment to cradle-to-grave social programs that are fundamental to its distinctive way of life.

Acknowledging that the price of abrogating the 1988 free-trade accord could be high if the United States retaliated economically, Barlow said: "The alternative, however, is the slow decline of Canada as a sovereign nation. . . . The price of remaining on this course will be infinitely higher."

Mulroney has maintained that free trade with the United States and Mexico is essential if Canada wants to remain competitive in an increasingly global market. With trade barriers falling all over the world, he has said, Canada must keep pace by lowering its tariffs and barriers and can do so without diminishing its sovereignty.

Formed in March 1985 by Barlow and three other ardent nationalists with the stated goal of defending Canada's cultural, economic, territorial and environmental sovereignty, the Council of Canadians went largely unnoticed until later that year, when the U.S. icebreaker Polar Sea entered the Northwest Passage without consulting Canadian officials.

Amid a storm of nationalist controversy, council members flew over the icebreaker and dropped on its deck a canister with a Canadian flag, symbolically reasserting Canada's sovereignty.

The group's membership jumped by 1,000 and grew to 16,000 as it lobbied against the sale of Canadian companies to U.S. conglomerates, opposed Washington's plans to sell oil and gas leases in the Beaufort Sea, above the Arctic Circle, and stirred early opposition to preliminary free-trade talks between the United States and Canada.

The campaign against free trade generated one of the most furious debates and outbursts of nationalism ever to sweep through Canada and became the crucial issue in the November 1988 parliamentary elections, in which Mulroney's government was returned to office for a second term.

When, a month later, Parliament approved the trade pact, the Council of Canadians seemed to disappear as quickly as it had risen to prominence. "Except that we didn't fold our tent. We just {laid} low, regrouped and did our research. We've had a pretty low profile," Barlow said in an interview. "One of our problems has been that the government never talks about free trade. They have nothing positive to say about it, so they say nothing. We've had nothing to respond to, so we've had a hard time getting our message across."

The council's message is a claim that 165,000 manufacturing jobs in Canada were lost in the first year of the trade deal because of increased competition or the closing of plants that moved south in search of cheaper labor and lower taxes. Also, the council contends, job creation in Canada dropped from 492,000 positions in 1987 to 193,000 in 1989.

At the same time, Barlow said, Ottawa has been selling its natural resources and public enterprises to fall into line with American-style privatization and has been deregulating its service sectors to conform to conservative U.S. government policy.

"People can now see that everything we said was true. Harmonization with the United States has happened. . . . People now see that Canada has been sold out for pure greed," Barlow said.

She cited a Gallup poll issued earlier this month that indicated that only 5 percent of Canadians believe Canada has gained more from the free-trade agreement than the United States, while 71 percent said that the United States has gained more.

Now the council, with a budget of $500,000 and an alliance with other nationalist groups, has taken on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada free-trade talks, which Barlow said would not only result in the further loss of jobs in Canada but would encourage the exploitation of poor Mexicans for cheap labor.

She dismissed the contention of government spokesmen who argue that as liberalized trade raises Mexico's wage levels and standard of living, demand for Canadian goods and services there would increase.

Another council founder, Mel Hurtig, said that the next federal election, in 1993, will show what Canadians think about free trade with the United States. Consequently, he said, the council hopes to extract pledges from leaders of the opposition Liberal and socialist New Democratic Party that, if they are elected, they will abrogate the 1988 free-trade agreement.