BORN: Oak Lake, Manitoba • 29 April 1929
A RAPACIOUS BUSINESSMAN WHOM ENVIRONMEN- talists decry for the damage he and his kind do to the Earth? The point man on a host of environmental crusades, the leading spokesman for the idea that economic development and environmental integrity need not be antagonistic? Maurice Strong, to his critics and admirers, is either one or the other, but perhaps he is a bit of both. What no one doubts is that he matters.
Born in rural Manitoba to a frequently unem¬ ployed Canadian Pacific Railway worker, a man whose proudest possession was a Loyalist heritage, Strong is the exemplar of the self-made capitalist. After a few years of high school, he ran away to sea during the Second World War and briefly worked as a fur trader in the Northwest Territories, learning an Inuit language in the process. Then he worked in the securities business, for oil companies, and in Africa.
In the mid-1950s, still in his twenties, he found a job with Dome Petroleum in Calgary and began to earn serious money, dealing in stock options and running financial risks every day. Within a few years, labelled a financial genius by everyone who knew him, Strong was in Montreal at the helm of Power Corp., a fast¬ growing conglomerate with the best of ties to the Liberal Party both in Quebec City and in Ottawa.
Power Corp. paved the way for Strong’s next career as a Canadian bureaucrat. Summoned by Prime Minister Pearson to reorganize and galvanize Canadian foreign aid, Strong expanded operations into French Africa, a tactic that served Canadian interests as the difficulties with Quebec’s role in La francophonie reached a crescendo.
As important, with Pierre Trudeau’s help and interest, Strong found the money to raise Canada’s aid from roughly 0.4 per cent ofGNP to 0.7 per cent. His job took him around the world and introduced him to the movers and shakers.
Naturally, the idealistic and entrepeneurial Canadian, a man acceptable in corporate boardrooms and at the United Nations, seemed the ideal person to run the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment and, after its relative success, to lead the UN’s new Environmental Program created to monitor ecological issues.
Then Strong returned to Canada to run Petro-Canada, the quasi-nationalized oil company, a company that in Alberta in the period was not viewed with much favour. “The private sector,” Strong groaned, “thinks you are an oddball or a socialist, and in the rest of the community you are suspect because you are a busi¬ nessman.” His work as chair of the Canada Development Investment Corporation in the early 1980s did little to ease that confused perception of his role and approach.
But to the United Nations, Strong was still a very attrac¬ tive figure, precisely because he combined business skills, a conscience, and charisma. In 1984 New York called on him to manage famine relief in Africa, a huge job of enormous importance. As Stephen Lewis, at the time Canadian ambas¬ sador to the UN, put it, “Whenever there was a critical moment, Maurice would appear in the country and, magi¬ cally, the bottleneck would disappear.”
Estimates suggested that 35 million survived who might have starved because of Strong’s program. He then organized the 1992 Earth Summit, again to global plaudits, and in 1997 a new UN secretary general called on him to shape the world organiza¬ tion’s administrative reform. This was power and influence.
How could anyone dislike this giant? Some of the diffi¬ culties arose from his activities in Colorado where, with his second wife, he has been involved in various activities involving the paranormal and the flakier environmental groups, while at the same time he has been promoting schemes that aim to exploit one of the West’s largest untapped aquifers.
Strong maintains that he wanted to develop the scheme in an environmentally safe way, but there are doubters aplenty who charge that Strong’s philosophy seems to be “think globally, dig locally.”Other critics point to some apparently dubious stock promotion schemes and suggest that Strong’s efforts in the environmental area are marked consistently by a too-cozy relationship with the corporate world, a combination that produces much talk and far too little action to rein in the greediest corporate exploiters.
Whatever the truth of the allegations, Strong has lost none of his lustre to Canadian governments. Bob Rae’s New Democratic Party government seduced him away from his corporate concerns and New Age spirituality to take over Ontario Hydro, a giant utility that was mired in debt.
Strong’s remedies were sweeping, but their impact for good or ill remains unclear. So too does the overall legacy of his long career as a public bureaucrat and corporate tycoon. There can be no doubt that he did much good in his UN roles; there is no denying that he made millions by riding skilfully along the interface between the corporate and the public.
Maurice Strong remains all but unique in Canada as a master of the public and the private boardrooms. And there is still a slight, if dwindling, chance that the UN might call him to be a “Mr. Fix-it” secretary general. This is the role, some say, for which he has been running all his life.