Colin H. Burnell was born in 1880 on a farm in Westbourne, Manitoba. He received his early education in Birtle, Manitoba and Medicine Hat, Alberta. He started farming at the age of 18 at Oakville, Manitoba. He devoted practically the whole of his life to farmer organizational work and service in the co-operative movement.
He joined the Manitoba Grain Growers Association in 1904, the year following its foundation, and later assisted in the organization of the Grain Growers Grain Company.
He played an active part in the famous ‘Siege of Ottawa’ and in 1921 had charge of the campaign which resulted in the election of Progressive Candidates in all rural constituencies of his province.
Burnell was made president of the United Farmers of Manitoba in 1922 and the following year was appointed chairman of the provisional committee to organize the Manitoba Wheat Pool. He became president of that organization when it was formed in 1924 and in the same year, with the president of the Alberta Wheat Pool and Saskatchewan Co-operative Wheat Producers Ltd., was elected a member of the executive of Canadian Co-operative Wheat Producers Ltd.
Burnell was also elected president of Manitoba Pool Elevators when it was first organized in 1925, a position he held until 1931. He was appointed honorary president of Manitoba Pool Elevators in 1940.