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in memoriam

Maurice Strong, seen in April, 2012, helped start the conversation on global warming by helping organize the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment.Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

With the death of Maurice Strong, the last of the mythic founders of the international environmental movement is gone. With a strange dramatic irony somehow characteristic of the man, this loss comes only three days before the latest, increasingly desperate attempt to force a serious deal on global warming, among other things, gets under way – the latest reluctant attempt by world leaders to rise to the challenge of saving their citizens and the planet.

The COP21 meeting, opening Monday in Paris, is the direct outcome of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, the first international meeting of its sort. It had been agreed on by the United Nations General Assembly in 1969, but no one knew what to do or how to do it. The countries with developing economies saw the environmental movement as the latest attempt by the West – the former empires – to prevent them from growing and escaping poverty. They were decided on boycotting the meeting. The organizers were in despair until Mr. Strong, an environmentalist and organizational genius, was brought in. Eighteen months later, 113 countries gathered in Stockholm – the North and the South. The environmental argument as we now know it was engaged. Mr. Strong was already warning of global warming.

What he brought to the table was not only conviction and organizational skill. He had a rare talent for bringing together two opposites – highly original conceptual thinking and highly pragmatic approaches to getting things done. He was able, for example, to conceptualize and explain sustainable development when no one knew what it was.

There were many other wonderful founders of the movement – Barbara Ward, Rachel Carson, René Dubos, to name only three – but Mr. Strong had the intellectual and professional talents to organize it. He was, if you like, the St. Paul of the environmental movement. He had the skills to help people who didn’t agree to work together, and people who were pessimistic or overly utilitarian to see that they could change things.

Out of Stockholm came a series of international conventions, agreements and targets. The United Nations created a new agency – the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – and asked Mr. Strong to organize and run it. He insisted it be placed in Nairobi. There were then no UN agencies in Africa. More conventions and agreements followed. More targets. When he left UNEP in 1975, a long New York Times editorial praising him was titled Custodian of the Planet.

A few years later, Mr. Strong was brought back into the system to organize and preside over the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Out of it came more conventions and agreements and targets. Those are more or less the targets that the 195 countries gathering in Paris this week must deal with.

By then Mr. Strong had been, for 22 years, the leading force in creating a complex web of international agreements and expectations that we identify as international environmentalism. He was in many ways the Canadian most listened to in the rest of the world. When I worked for him in the 1970s, I was astonished at the way doors everywhere effortlessly opened to him in a way they would for only a few government leaders. He was at the heart of what was becoming the most important civil society, scientific and political movement of our time.

One key to his talent was that he could help people come to conclusions from which it would be humiliating to withdraw. And indeed, most of our national leaders have been trying unsuccessfully to escape this aura of failure that surrounds them every time they try to deal with urgent environmental issues. They will face this quandary again in Paris.

It is worth going back to the first two sentences of Mr. Strong's opening speech in Stockholm in June, 1972:

"We have determined that we must control and harness the forces, which we have ourselves created. We know that if these forces can be effectively controlled, they will provide everything that life on this planet desires and requires; but if they are permitted to dominate us, they will have an insatiable and unforgiving appetite."

Through those years and afterward, he tried to encourage and work with the movement – whether civil society, specialists or governments. Some felt he didn't go far or fast enough, or made too many compromises. This is the inevitable complexity of the real drama that the environmental crisis represents for us all. I came to work for him 40 years ago for a short three, exhausting, exhilarating years, when he was asked by Pierre Trudeau to set up Petro-Canada. What I saw then and have seen over the decades since has been thousands of young environmentalists – and some now not so young – who consider themselves to be his followers or measure themselves somehow against him.

From CIDA to Petro-Canada

This man, who held more than 50 honorary degrees and 25 honours from around the world, finished high school but did not go to university. He was born in 1929 to a poor family in a small town, Oak Lake, Man. His father couldn't find regular work until the Second World War. He told me that during those hard Prairie winters, the children took turns getting up in the early morning to start the fire. He graduated young from school, ran off to work on a steamer, was sent home, then went to work as an assistant factor for the Hudson Bay post in the Arctic, in Baker Lake. The factor was such a racist that Mr. Strong moved out of the post to spend the winter with an Inuit family.

This was the beginning of a life-long commitment to indigenous rights. Throughout his environmental work, there was an indigenous theme and involvement by indigenous movements.

As Mr. Strong tried to find a way into business, he was able to spend a short time as a messenger at the headquarters of the nascent United Nations. He fell in love with what he saw and felt his life lay there.

Instead, life took him into the energy business, where in Calgary he became a vice-president of Dome Petroleum. He rose from there to become president of Power Corp. in Montreal. He was disturbed by its old Anglo style and, indeed, when he left, he played a role in it being taken over by a brilliant Franco-Ontarian, Paul Desmarais.

From there he was tempted into the world that truly interested him. Paul Martin Sr. was then Canada's minister of external affairs. Mr. Strong moved to Ottawa as deputy minister in charge of foreign aid, and in effect he went on to create CIDA – the Canadian International Development Agency – and to put in place Canada's modern aid policy.

This became a theme in his life – the need to deal with poverty. Mr. Strong had been brought up in poverty, and over the years he had seen its effects in the world. This understanding shaped his ability to deal with the deep separation in the environmental movement between developed economies and the developing, between the North and the South. He saw the environmental cause as one that must right the wrongs done to indigenous peoples and create a development or growth model that dealt with poverty.

It was from CIDA that he was sent to create the Stockholm Conference and UNEP. And from there, Pierre Trudeau drew him home to create Petro-Canada.

The world was in the middle of an energy crisis. Canada – oil rich – discovered that it had no control over the resource. The foreign-owned companies sent most of the oil found in Western Canada to the United States. From Ontario on east, the country was no better off than Europe, where oil was being rationed. That half of the country had to hope for oil from the Middle East – and on its conditions.

So Mr. Strong was given a small budget to set up the national oil company. There was a minority Liberal government and it was pleasing the NDP with this initiative, but there was no plan to make the company into a major player. It was then that I went to work for the new chief executive officer of the non-existent company. What I witnessed was the energy and conceptual talent with which Mr. Strong could make something out of nothing. Since the government wouldn't give him much money, he asked if he could borrow from the banks using the government's guarantee. They agreed and he quickly bought two large foreign-owned oil companies – Atlantic Richfield and Pacific Petroleum. A third – Petrofina – was in the works when he left Petro-Canada. In other words, he miraculously created a major player in the oil patch.

The opponents of the company complained that he had overpaid, but the company prospered. These were tough times politically. Going into a large, raucous dinner in Calgary of the oil patch landmen, who gave him a very hard time, Mr. Strong put me in charge of his companion, Hanne Marstrand – later his wife and fellow supporter of indigenous causes. He looked at me with his wry smile and said, "If things get rough, your job is to get Hanne out of here."

One of the first things he did as CEO was to put environmental and indigenous issues on the short list for any approval by the board of directors involving industry plays. This meant other companies had to do the same.

I remember on my first trip to the Arctic, as his very junior assistant, he insisted on a long meeting with the three indigenous hunter and trapper associations in Inuvik. There, for the first time, I heard a conversation about culture and responsibility that had nothing to do with traditional Western versions of arguing for or against development. He had a clear understanding of the rights of indigenous peoples and of their philosophy regarding the land.

After Petro-Canada, Mr. Strong tried his hand briefly at Canadian politics, but he withdrew from a by-election before the vote. Politics was not something he enjoyed. He was then involved in a multitude of businesses ventures, some controversial. But above all, he was everywhere in the environmental movement – setting up organizations, advising, sitting on commissions, pushing the complex web of environmental regulations ever further. And with astonishing energy for a man never in good health, he travelled the world, explaining, chiding, pushing.

In 1984 he was asked to come back to the United Nations to help deal with the famine emergency in Ethiopia. In fact, as he kept arguing, it was a crisis affecting much of Africa. There were campaigns around the world to raise money and send food. As many as 30 million people were thought to be in danger of death.

Mr. Strong went on a relentless campaign and raised much of the tens of millions needed.

Soon there was more than enough food. The problem was that it couldn't be delivered to the starving. There was a war going on, and the government of Ethiopia either blocked the food or seized it for the army. Mr. Strong then plunged into a moral struggle to somehow force President Mengistu Haile Mariam to let the food through. I have heard descriptions from others of Mr. Strong pounding on the dictator's desk in fury.

In the midst of all of this, I remember meeting him once in Paris. He had flown in from Addis Ababa to Cairo, spent the night sleeping on a bench in the airport and came to Europe for a major fundraising meeting. One way or another, he raised the money and persuaded the Ethiopian government to co-operate. The food began to find its way.

Mr. Strong was apparently a mild man, relentlessly polite, always working out how to persuade people to act. He had many critics and was often under attack, but he seemed to take all of this calmly. His causes carried him through – that fascinating mix of driving environmentalism, finding ways to bring the North and the South together, and supporting the role of indigenous peoples. There was an originality and an independence in his ways of thinking and acting that I have seen in no one else.

As the politicians and officials in Paris stare at each other and attempt to find their way through to a place that might save the planet and the public good, I would encourage them to remember the originality and courage of Mr. Strong, acting at a time when the public did not yet understand the cause.

Now the public in its vast majority understands, believes and wants action. Their representatives seem to lack the courage to meet the tasks that had been clearly set from Stockholm to Rio to today.

One final quote from Mr. Strong's opening speech in Stockholm in 1972: "We need subscribe to no doomsday view to be convinced that we cannot – we dare not – wait for all the evidence to be in. Time is no ally here unless we make it one."

John Ralston Saul is the author of The Comeback and of A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada, the president of PEN International and co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.

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