Maurice Strong has played a unique and critical role is globalizing the environmental movement. Secretary General of both the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which launched the world environment movement, and the 1992 Rio Environmental Summit, he was the first Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Maurice F. Strong (born April 29th, 1929, in Oak Lake, Manitoba) has had a career in both business and public service, primarily in the fields of international development, the environment, energy and finance.

Great Depression

Strong grew up in a poor family in a small town in Manitoba during the Great Depression, in which the poverty and hardships suffered by his family and most others made a deep and enduring impression on him.  At an early age, he questioned the justness of a system in which people had so many needs but could not obtain the work that would enable them to meet those needs.  When the family began to receive regular income for the first time after his father joined The Royal Canadian Air Force following after the outbreak of World War II, he was struck by the irony that it took a war to produce the jobs and the resources that were not available during the depression.  

Despite their poverty, his responsible and hardworking father and his enlightened and intelligent mother, a former teacher, gave their children a sound and happy, though necessarily austere, family life.  His school principal, a convinced socialist, subjected young Maurice to a combination of strict discipline and the opportunity to accelerate his learning to the point where he had completed high school to university entrance level by the age of 14.  At the same time, he devoted himself to the self-education which he has continued throughout his life, spending much time alone in nature observing and trying to understand its wonders and its cycles.

A stowaway.

Maurice Strong with an Eskimo family
Maurice Strong, visiting an Inuit family at Chesterfield Inlet, Hudson Bay. Photo taken by Norman Sanders on 10 November 1945.

After a brief stint as a stowaway on a Great Lakes ship, the Noronic -- the largest passenger ship of the Canadian Steamship Lines -- Strong decided to go to sea and rode freight trains across Canada to Vancouver.

Along the way, he heard the statement by Churchill and Roosevelt after their meeting on a ship in the Atlantic, that after the war they intended to create a United Nations to bring peace and justice to the world.

He determined that this is what he would like to do with his life and it became his principal aspiration. He then followed closely news of the establishment of United Nations in San Francisco.

He left the Merchant Marine at his father’s insistence and returned home for another year. Then, in response to a newspaper advertisement, he obtained a job as an apprentice to a manager to the far northern trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

There he developed a deep fondness for the Inuit people from who he learned a great deal, including their language.  He was fascinated by their relationship with nature which had enabled them to survive and develop a distinctive culture in the harsh climate of the Arctic.
He felt that the Inuit were a patient, persistant and innovative people, who had evolved a way of life and a value system that enabled them to live in harmony with their Arctic surroundings.


In 1947, at the UN General Assembly, Maurice Strong had the privilege of meeting Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. In her statement to the UN on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she said:"This Declaration is based upon the spiritual fact that man must have freedom in which to develop his full stature and through common effort to raise the level of human dignity.

During this period, too, he began to collect rock samples, guided by a correspondence course for prospectors.  This brought him to the attention of a flamboyantly adventurous American, Bill Richardson, who had arrived on the annual supply ship to prospect in the area.  He invited Maurice to join him when he returned to Toronto where he lived with his wife, an heiress to an oil fortune.

Through them, Strong met with a leading U.N. official who arranged for him to have a temporary, very low-level appointment, which enabled him to realize his dream and serve as a junior security officer at the then UN headquarters in Lake Success, New York.

This confirmed Strong's belief that the United Nations was the place for him, but made him realize, too, that without sufficient education or political ties, he could not expect to rise up within the ranks. 
He decided the best course for him would be to return to Canada and try to develop there the qualifications that would enable him to return to the United Nations in a more substantive role.

He did this, first obtaining a role as a trainee analyst, and then specialist in oil and mineral resources for a leading brokerage firm, James Richardson & Sons. Moving to Calgary, Alberta, he became assistant to one of the most colorful and dramatically successful leaders of the oil industry, Jack Gallagher.  He gave Strong the opportunity of learning the business from a more operational point of view and as the company, Dome Petroleum, grew, Strong occupied several key roles, including Vice President, Finance..

Africa visit 

Maurice Strong with President Jomo Kenyatta
Kenya's first President, Jomo Kenyatta (third from left) welcomes Maurice Strong (right) as the first Executive Director of UNEP.

With his then wife, Pauline, he left Dome to take took a two year trip around the world and arrived in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. Strong took up an assignment with Caltex to develop new service station sites, which gave him the opportunity to travel extensively in East Africa and see a good deal of the region's rich wildlife and its fascinating diversity of people.

In Nairobi, he was introduced to the work of YMCA, an orgnaization with which he would do much work later on. From East Africa, the Strongs took a slow boat to Calcutta and travelled extensively in India, including some time in the Himalayas. Afterwards, travelling through East Asia, including China and Japan, they arrived back in Canada in 1954.

On his return, Strong rejoined Dome. He also volunteered to work with the YMCA in its World Service Program, becoming  national President and Chairman of the Extension and Intermovement Aid of the World Alliance of YMCAs.

His work with YMCA gave him the very first experience of participating in, and the chairing, international meetings and introduced him to the world of international development.

Here Strong met Tracy Strong, who was the Secretary General of the World Alliance headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland and a brother of Anna Louise Strong, the American journalist whose letters from China had been such a source of Strong’s early interest in China.

Tracy Strong confirmed that he and Strong did indeed have a family relationship though somewhat distant, Strong was pleased to meet, too, his son, Robbins, of the World Council of Churches in Geneva. Deciding that he wanted to do something on his own, he took over a very small and failing natural gas company, Ajax Petroleums, and built it into what became one of the leading companies in the industry, Norcen Resources.  .

This attracted the attention of one of Canada’s principal investment corporations with extensive interests in the energy and utility businesses, Power Corporation of Canada.  It appointed him initially as its Executive Vice President, then as President. His position at Power Corporation attracted national interest which enabled his views on Canada’s role in the world to be heard..

Foreign Affairs and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)

Maurice Strong Hanne Strong Nelson Mandela Gracha Marcel
Maurice and Hanne Strong with Graca Marcel and Nelson Mandela

Serving on many corporate boards, he also continued to develop his interest in foreign affairs and make speeches about Canada’s foreign policy, which he contended should concentrate on being a friend of the developing world.  This brought him to the attention of the Minister of External Affairs, Paul Martin Senior, and Prime Minister Lester Pearson. 

Pearson invited him to come into the government as a Deputy Minister with responsibility for what was then External Aid, and which, under his leadership, eventually became the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).  His work at CIDA enabled him to return to the United Nations as a Canadian delegate, in which role he established close ties, particularly with its Development Programme.  

In the meantime, his fascination with nature evolved into an interest in conservation. He saw the newly emerging environment movement as being closely related to development.  This became increasingly clear to him as his involvement in the resources industry demonstrated how its development inflicted significant damage to the environment.  It led eventually to his realization that it would only be through better and more responsible management of development that the environment could be protected.

Through his friendship with Paul Martin Sr, Strong met his talented and ambitious young son, Paul Martin Jr, and later hired him as his Executive Assistant at the Power Corporation.  Their friendship has been a continuing one, even as young Paul became highly successful in his own right in the business world.  Later, Paul Martin became Prime Minister of Canada.

Strong's work with CIDA gave him new insights into the complexities of development. He was troubled by the environmental and social disruption caused by major infrastructure projects, which CIDA supported. It wasn't long before he became involved with environmental politics..

The Stockholm Conference and UNEP

Indira Gandhi at the 1972 Stockholm Conference
Maurice Strong welcomes Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, at 1972 Stockholm Conference.

In 1969, the UN General Assembly decided to convene the first major inter-governmental conference on environmental issues, the UN Conference on the Human Environment. The meeting was to be held in 1972, but by early 1970, hardly anything had happened. The Swedish government began to worry. Eventually their ambassador, Sverker Astrom, contacted Strong, through a mutual friend, Wayne Kines, who was a media consultuant to the UN. Astrom recommended Strong to Philippe de Seyne, the UN undersecretary general for economic and social affairs. Kines arranged a meeting between Strong and de Seyne.

UN Secretary-General, U Thant,  invited Strong to lead it as Secretary-General of the Conference and as Undersecretary General of the UN responsible for environmental affairs. Strong turned the preparations for the Stockholm Conference around. He used his consummate diplomatic skills to obtain the support of the developing countries, who were extremely sceptical about environmental issues.

Strong scored a major diplomatic coup when he travelled to New Delhi and obtained the agreement of Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, to attend the conference. At Stockholm, Prime Minister Gandhi made one of the most influential speeches of the entire conference.

The Stockholm Conference was a resounding success. It adopted a Declaration of Principles and Action Plan to deal with global environmental issues. It put the environment issue on the international agenda and confirmed its close link with development. The Stockholm Conference moved into the history books as major landmark, launching a new era of international environmental diplomacy.

In December 1972, the UN General Assembly established the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and elected Strong to head it. The General Assembly also took a landmark decision to locate UNEP in Nairobi. Thus UNEP became the first ever UN agency to be headquartered in a developing country, rather than New York, Geneva or Vienna..

Return to Canada

Maurice Strong with Canada's charismatic Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau and Ken Strong

In 1976, at the request of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Strong returned to Canada to head the newly created national oil company, PetroCanada. In an editorial the New York Times paid an exceptional tribute to his service to the U. N. He then became Chairman of the Canada Development Investment Corporation, the holding company for some of Canada’s principal government-owned corporations.

Returning to private life, Strong acquired effective control and became Chairman of AZL Resources Incorporated, which had large holdings of ranch lands in the United States, including a major land development in the San Luis Valley of Colorado.

Returning to Canada, his role in leading the UN’s famine relief program in Africa was the first in a series of UN advisory assignments, including reform and his appointment as Secretary General of the UN Conference on Environment and Development -- best known as the Earth Summit -- held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. This was a landmark event attended by more heads of government than had ever met together before, as well as more media and non-governmental representatives. 

After intense negotiations, the Earth Summit  produced Agreement on Conventions on Climate Change and Bio-diversity and launched a process which produced a Convention on Desertification.  .

Particularly noteworthy, too, was the Agreement reached on a set of principles to set the world on the pathway to sustainable development and a program of action, known as Agenda 21, as the agreed basis for cooperative action to move implement them..

Maurice Strong with Condoleezza Rice
Maurice Strong with the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice

After the Earth Summit, Strong continued to take a leading role in implementing the results of Rio through establishment of the Earth Council, the Earth Charter movement, his Chairmanship of the World Resources Institute, Membership on the Board of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the Stockholm Environment Institute, the African-American Institute, the Institute of Ecology in Indonesia, the Beijer Institute of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and others. Strong was a longtime Foundation Director of the World Economic Forum, a Senior Advisor to the President of the World Bank, a Member of the International Advisory of Toyota Motor Corporation, the Advisory Council for the Center for International Development of Harvard University, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the World Wildlife Fund, Resources for the Future, and the Eisenhower Fellowships.  .

Strong public service activities were carried out mainly on a pro bono basis,  made possible by his business activities. From December 1992 through 1995, Strong served as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Ontario Hydro, then North America’s largest electric power utility.  During this period, the company made the transition from the largest loss in its history and rising rates to its largest ever profit which allowed lower rates to be established and major programs for efficiency and sustainability to be undertaken..

University of Peace

In 1999, at the request of then UN Secretary-General, Perez de Cuelar, Strong took on the task of trying to restore the viability of the University for Peace, headquartered in Costa Rica, which was established under the authorization of the UN General Assembly, although not a UN organization as such.  The UN’s reputation was as risk as the organization had been subjected to severe mismanagement, misappropriation of funds and inoperative governance.  As Chairman of its governing body, the Council, and initially as Rector, Strong led the process of revitalizing the University for Peace and helped to rebuild its programs and leadership.  He retired from the Council in the spring of 2007.

From 2003 and 2005, Strong served as the personal envoy U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to lead support for the international response to the humanitarian and development needs of the Democratic People/s Republic of Korea (North Korea). As an essential contribution to the prospects for a peaceful settlement of the long-standing conflict on the Korean Peninsular. .


Maurice Strong greets Chinese President Hu Jin Tao
The President of China, Hu Jin Tao, greets Maurice Strong

Strong, from his earliest days,  had a deep interest in and fascination for China and has been going to China for more than 40 years in various capacities, personal, United Nations, World Bank and business. 

He now spends most of his time there and is active as an advisor and business relationships in the environment, energy, and technology sectors.  His principal activities are centered at Peking University, where he is an active Honorary Professor, as well as Honorary Chairman of its Environmental Foundation and Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Institute for Research on Security and Sustainability for Northeast Asia, following up on his experience with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).

Indeed, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, near the end of his term, paid the following tribute to Strong:

“Looking back on our time together, we have shared many trials and tribulations and I am grateful that I had the benefit of your global vision and wise counsel on many critical issues, not least the delicate question of the Korean Peninsula and China’s changing role in the world.  Your unwavering commitment to the environment, multilateralism and peaceful resolution of conflicts is especially appreciated.”