Robert Benjamin Canney was born July 7, 1928 in West Lebanon, Maine. During World War II, at the age of 15, he altered his birth certificate and entered the Merchant Marine. He served in the Merchant Marines for several years and later enlisted in the United States Army. He served in the 82nd Airborne until 1950. In 1952, he married Constance (Connie) March. While working in various jobs to support a family that included three children, Canney attended classes in education at several New England colleges. He entered the University of Florida in 1961, completed his undergraduate studies, and went on to earn a master's degree in 1964. Shortly afterwards, he accepted a position at the Brevard Junior College in Cocoa.

It was at the University of Florida that Canney first became involved in the civil rights struggle as a member of the Student Group for Equal Rights. He was one of several UF students arrested at a desegregation sit-in in Ocala. At Brevard Junior College he helped organize the first Florida chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and was a leader in the 1968 statewide teacher's strike. Like many of those who played a leadership role in that strike, Canney was not rehired when the strike ended. He decided to return to the University of Florida and was admitted to its doctoral program in education in 1968. While working on his doctorate, Canney served as an instructor in the College of Education.

During his tenure as a graduate student and instructor at UF, Canney continued to be active in the civil rights movement while also taking a leading role in the growing opposition to the war in Vietnam. He was a key organizer of a statewide demonstration in Straub Park in St. Petersburg on April 18, 1970 that united black activists and antiwar protestors. After making a speech at the demonstration in which he declared "Let's bring the goddamn war home and begin dealing with the problems which confront us here," police broke up the demonstration. Canney was arrested for public profanity and charged with resisting arrest. The profanity charge stemmed from an ordinance passed several days earlier by the St. Petersburg city council. That charge was quickly dropped, but he was tried and convicted on the resisting arrest charge.

Canney was sentenced to two years in prison and was subsequently fired by the University of Florida. He was briefly incarcerated at Lake Butler and then released on appeal. He was returned to prison in 1975 to begin his sentence. His trial and imprisonment spurred a Free Bob Canney Movement that brought national attention to his case. He was released after serving five months of his sentence and moved back to Maine with his family.

Bob Canney sustained his struggle for social justice throughout his life. In Maine, he and Connie operated an antique store and both remained active in various causes. Both traveled to Nicaragua in 1984 to give their support to that country's struggle against US backed Contra rebels. Only months before his death on August 21, 1988, Canney had traveled to Cuba with the solidarity group Venceremos Brigade.