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From right, former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Hanne Strong, Governor General David Johnston, former prime minister Joe Clark and former prime minister Paul Martin attend a commemoration ceremony in Ottawa for Strong.FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

During an interview in 2014, Maurice Strong told The Globe and Mail how he, a businessman turned diplomat, came to have a lifelong interest in science and the environment. It started with the principal of the school he attended while growing up in rural Manitoba.

"He used to introduce us to the larger world and he positioned us in that larger world," said Mr. Strong, who died in November at the age of 86.

On Wednesday, in a packed reception hall across from Parliament Hill, members of Canada's political and international elite gathered to pay tribute to the unique way that Mr. Strong ultimately positioned himself in that larger world – becoming the key catalyst for the environment as an international relations issue and launching the multilateral process that has led to agreements on climate and biodiversity.

"Maurice Strong was a pioneer of sustainable development who left our country and our world a better place," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during the memorial ceremony.

After growing up in Depression-era poverty and leaving school at a young age, Mr. Strong wore many hats during his long career, including oil patch entrepreneur, president of Power Corp., and CEO of both Petro-Canada and Ontario Hydro.

But at the Ottawa event, organized by former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson and her husband, philosopher and essayist John Ralston Saul, the focus was squarely on Mr. Strong's pivotal role at the United Nations, where, in 1972, he effectively became the convenor of the international environmental movement by stepping in to rescue the world's first conference on environmental issues in Stockholm.

Mr. Strong is widely credited with melding environment with development, which brought Indira Gandhi, India's prime minister, to the conference – along with other developing world leaders who otherwise would not have supported the effort. Months later, the United Nations Environment Program was created, with Mr. Strong as its first executive director.

Two decades later, Mr. Strong was still at it, this time as chairman of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, billed as history's largest-ever gathering of world leaders.

The summit spun off crucial mechanisms for international co-operation on the environment, including the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which led directly to the Kyoto Protocol and, just recently, the Paris climate summit.

Martin Lees, former secretary-general of the global think tank Club of Rome, said Mr. Strong's combined sense of vision and practical realism enabled him to see opportunities and make things happen in ways that others assumed were impossible. He added that being Canadian at a time when Canada was recognized as a diverse and tolerant society that could be an honest broker in world affairs was another key to his success.

"In fact, it's difficult to visualize how he could have achieved as much if he had not been a Canadian," Mr. Lees said.

As the formal ceremony concluded and attendees lingered to reminisce, Dr. Saul, who once served as an executive assistant to Mr. Strong, said one of his most important and instructive traits was his ability to imagine and reimagine environmental issues in a way that could move the global dialogue forward.

"Here's a guy who actually turned things around. I think that's a real inspiration to people, even if they didn't know him," he said.