MISTER CLEAN IS A CANADIAN
His name is Maurice Strong and he needs no added ingredients
In the big bright conference chamber the delegates of 27 countries ceased chatting and Chief Adebo of Nigeria, impressive in pale-blue robes, urbanely introduced the round-faced man with the little black moustache: “He has come here from Canada to deal with this problem, bringing fresh air to this assembly . . .” It was Monday morning as usual in the forum of the world but the sense of unreality seemed heightened. The problem was pollution and outside smoke was billowing from the chimneys of the power plant next door. This committee represented the entire United Nations, split by doctrine, color, creed, old hate and new nationalism. And yet here was the speaker, Maurice Strong, Secretary-General of the UN Conference on the Human Environment next June at Stockholm, stating with cheerful confidence that he thought he could bring them together in a worldwide cooperative effort to save the planet.
“Do you realize how much rides on this guy?” the American beside me whispered.
I nodded. In 1960 I had studied pollution for Maclean’s and since then had watched it growing steadily worse. Our water and air are so contaminated now by chemicals and waste that biologists warn of genetic damage to man. River systems are dying from lack of oxygen, fish in mid-ocean are unfit to eat, a thousand species of animals are endangered. We have cut two thirds of the world’s forest, laid waste 1.3 billion fertile acres. And as we destroy the ecological systems that maintain life we are raising the carbon dioxide in the air at such a rate — some 25% by the year 2000 — that scientists are predicting catastrophic changes in climate. Some say the planet is already doomed, others say it is not too late if the nations can agree to stop polluting, and the only hope in sight is Stockholm and Strong.
He seemed an unlikely world savior, unimpressive in speech or appearance. As a journalist had written,
“You wouldn’t pick him out of a crowd of two.”
He was talking with boyish eagerness, exuding optimism. Considering the magni-
tude of his job it suggested naïveté. He kept talking about this “process” he was devising for the conference. At 42 he had something still of Oak Lake, Manitoba, something of the small town and the west.
Yet he held, beyond question, the world’s most crucial job. He had to get all the facts in and summarized for the politicians and set up the conference so that action would result. If he tried for too much he’d get nothing, but too little was worse: a false hope. He had to get agreement on the most dangerous pollutants, a treaty on limits or quotas on amounts dumped in soil, air or water, a global network to check them, a world standard of measurement, and an environmental world court to issue injunctions and set damages.
But unless the majority supported him he was beaten before he started. Sweden had asked for the conference in spring 1968 because the new high British smokestacks so effectively cleaning up London were dispatching the fumes to Sweden, threatening her forests. It was futile, in fact it was folly in view of the cost it added to goods, for any one country to stop polluting unless the others did, and the first fact of life that Strong had faced was that most wanted some pollution.
This was the reason that Strong was up there on the dais. The UN Secretary-General had asked for him in February 1970. Strong had just finished streamlining CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, and was ready to move on.
He talked it over with Pierre Trudeau at lunch and the Prime Minister had said, “U Thant’s got the whole world to choose from and we’ve got a shortage of good people.” Strong was disappointed but reconciled; he knew that Trudeau was counting on him to set up the Canada Development Corporation. But when Trudeau told U Thant he couldn’t release Strong, U Thant said he would keep the job open.
In July Strong came home one night late as usual and asked his wife, Pauline, “Any calls?”
“Just two,” she said. “The PM and U Thant.”
U Thant was pressing Trudeau now, as was Sweden’s Prime Min-
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ister. The CDC was stalled until fall and might be stalled even longer. Strong called on Trudeau. “Look,” he said, “I won’t give you all the reasons I could for going to the UN. I just feel I should, I want to, and I want you to release me.” In previous talks with U Thant, Trudeau had stressed the importance of the environment and had said that the UN hadn’t enough good Canadians. Impaled on both points he gave Strong a leave of absence.
Strong went to New York in October, 1970, to find little done and little concern. As his righthand man he picked a bright UN staffer, a Swiss, Marc Nerfin, but after three days Nerfin said he was quitting. “We’ve no budget. No authority. It just can’t be done in this system.”
“Well, if I can get something done will you go along with me?”
Nerfin agreed; he knew why U Thant had waited so long for Strong. The UN had swelled from 50-odd countries in 1945 to 127, some 50 of them new states, former Asian and African colonies where the average income per person is less than $500 a year. Their votes had turned the cosy club of rich western powers into a non-white pressure group for equality. The UN secretariat was now a huge aid-dispensing machine that took 95% of the threebillion-dollar budget of the UN and World Bank. What did the poor countries care if a processing plant spewed out some effluents? Ten thousand people were dying daily of malnutrition from lack of such plants. They didn’t want development money diverted to pollution control, they preferred pollution, “the rich man’s disease,” to poverty. They suspected the west of wanting to keep their lands in a state of nature, nice places to safari in, a source of cheap raw materials.
But Strong had been head of CIDA for four years. He was credited in the UN with doubling Canadian aid, sending CIDA experts overseas, putting CIDA advisers in trade missions, enlisting the help of businessmen, pushing research in farming and food. He was known in developing countries, I was told by Jim Grant, president of the U.S. Overseas Development Council, as a fighter for “no-strings aid” — loans that do not have to be spent in the giver’s country — and as a fighter against “Band-Aid charity” — giving goods instead of helping new countries make their own. He was one of the few men the delegates would listen to.
“All right,” Strong told them in private sessions, “you can write off the conference and me too — but it won’t be good for you or the UN. A lot of people in the rich countries are
disenchanted with the UN. They’re saying, ‘Let’s clean up the mess ourselves, outside the UN.’ The UN hasn’t done much as a peacemaker because neither you nor the middle powers are really interested in cold-war issues. And development doesn’t really concern the east bloc. If the rich countries do this themselves we’ll be missing the best chance yet to show that the UN can be effective. Stockholm can be the end or the salvation of the UN.”
Strong was lobbying for a mandate, the power to decide and act, never before conferred by a UN committee. He was sure that unless he got it the conference would fail. But he had to convince the committee as a whole on November 9, a meeting much like the one I was watching now.
Strong ended his speech; he would be trapped on the platform another hour. I went up to his office, two rooms on the 29th floor, nothing sumptuous. At his headquarters in Geneva in the old League of Nations building he has a staff of 15 but here, only two busy busy secretaries and Adolfo Korn, an Argentinian who helped him prepare for November 9.
“He came down the weekend before,” Korn said. “We were all pretty discouraged. But he got us working day and night and he finished his speech at midnight before the meeting.
“He didn’t exactly bang the table but he talked very frankly. He said, in effect, ‘I’m a development man, I won’t sell out development. I’m aware that some of you think this a rich man’s problem. But the wrong kind of development can lead to soil erosion and contaminated water. It’s all one problem, everybody’s problem.’ He told them precisely what had to be done and convinced them he could do it.
“Many delegates had come with instructions from their capitals to undo or delay the conference. But the Africans spoke up — he was a wellknown friend of Africa. The Russians spoke for him — he arranged the first Russian-Canadian student exchange. The word went out that here was a man who was going to get things done and we came away with enthusiasm and a mandate.”
Back in the conference chamber a Ghanaian was saying, “If we’re going to Stockholm something has got to come out of it.” Whatever the reservations of the undeveloped countries, Strong had blocked a boycott and sold them participation. And now he was off to Washington to do a little lobbying, for the biggest changes in attitude had to come from the biggest polluters, the great industrial consumerstates dedicated to money and power.
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Would they give up some power to a central world agency? Foot the bill for pollution control? Curb industry? Ask consumers to give up some products?
Strong, as I flew along with him to assess his chances, was sanguine. “You know, I briefed Senator Muskie before his last trip to Russia and he raised the issue with Kosygin and Brezhnev. Trudeau raised it with Mrs. Gandhi. There’s a lot of concern at the top.”
I studied him surreptitiously. In profile his features seemed sharper, harder. At the end of a grueling nonstop day he was still eager, cheerful, buoyant. But his optimism was suspect. He had to get a bandwagon rolling. Like any salesman he had to believe in his product.
“I’m used to being a winner,” he said, as if divining my doubt. And indeed, as he told me his story it seemed like a crib from Horatio Alger. A Manitoba family so poor they ate pigweeds for greens when his father was bumped from his railroad job. A kid so bright he was through grade 12 at 13. Then running off from home to enlist. Stowing away on a lake boat. Riding the rods to the West Coast where he doctored his birth certificate to ship out as a deckhand on a troopship. At his father’s insistence coming home to get his matric at 15.
En route to univeristy he answered a Hudson’s Bay ad that took him to Chesterfield Inlet for two years of fur trading, reading and rock-hounding. Up came a group of prospectors, spinning their yarns of wealth, and he joined them in Toronto, learned accounting and stock promotion, and at 17 was treasurer of a small exploration company.
An influential friend got him a job at the UN but he soon saw that he needed education. He took an RCAF pilot’s course; lack of depth perception washed him out. The western oil boom was at its height. He joined James Richardson & Sons in Winnipeg, toured the fields, built a telephone network, kept a card on every well and “made a point of knowing more and working harder than anyone else” to become “the analyst in oils.” Jack Gallagher of Imperial Oil was launching Dome Explorations; he needed a financial adviser. At 23, two years married, Strong had a brandnew house in Calgary, a $50,000 salary and $50,000 in investments.
“I had it made,” he said as our plane came down at Washington, “so I walked in the house one day and said, ‘Pauline, we’re leaving,’ and I blew it all on a trip around the world.” Remembering, Strong grinned.
He hurried off to address a high-
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level gathering of politicians, international scientists and scholars. The name of his game was involvement: inform and build concern in the hope that it would lead to political pressure. A sound enough tactic no doubt — except that lead-free gas had flopped.
In the morning I joined a packed audience in the old Supreme Court chamber for a joint Senate - House hearing on the environment. Strong, who seemed well known, led off 10 eminent speakers. He was by no means an orator but his earnestness was selfevident, his good humor infectious, his diffidence disarming. Stockholm, he said, was “a launching pad for a quest for global knowledge.” He had written each government for a report, as well as 20-some UN agencies and several hundred international organizations. He’d asked more than 100 of the leading thinkers and scientists in the world to write “a report on the state of the environment.” He and a group of experts from the UN and the Smithsonian Institution would go over the papers in Geneva, “identify the worst dangers and how to deal with them,” and boil them down into six position papers and six action plans. Action — that was his keynote. He wasn’t just preparing for a meeting, he was creating “a continuous process for world legislation.” But the politicians would have to come with “the will to act.”
As the speakers told of work and plans under way in the U.S. and Britain, in Sweden, Latin America and UNESCO, Senator Magnuson, a joint chairman, would keep leaving, he said, to vote, and each time he came back he would introduce “another distinguished colleague...” Senator Fulbright . . . Senator Humphrey . . . Senator Edward Kennedy, magnetic as a movie star but lacking personal authority. The significance finally struck me. Much of the audience was young.
Youth had played a major role in changing racial and pro-war attitudes. Now environment was their catchword and the politicians had heard. There was hope in the fact that environment was a hot issue.
I could see why Strong was planning a worldwide conference of youth at Hamilton, addressing organizations, inviting leaders to Stockholm. He was involving everyone who could help with pressure or influence. He had started at breakfast with Senator Baker at 7:45 and after lunch with some senators he would go on to a series of meetings with key people in the government and the World Bank.
In the months ahead he would run through this routine in scores of capitals. He would talk to heads of state in Africa, Latin American ministers in Panama, Asian experts in Bangkok, scientists in Canberra. And watching him lobbying now as the hearing broke for lunch you could glimpse that singleminded purpose so essential to success.
But it would take more than dedication to keep the Stockholm conference from becoming another international talkfest, another hoax. A real attack on the problem hinged on how Strong set it up, in other words, on Strong himself, his experience and his foresight, his toughness and his staying power, above all, his political realism.
We were back at the UN next day for an 8 a.m. staff meeting, Strong in shirt-sleeves listening quietly, then ticking off chores from scribbled notes: people to hire, meetings to set up with Henry Ford and John Rockefeller to try to raise money for experts to travel, for regional meetings of poor countries. He obviously generated excitement and his public relations counsel, Whitman Bassow, had a too-
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simple explanation: “Vitality. One of our people, Peter Stone, called him one morning at six. Maurice seemed out of breath when he answered the phone, he kept puffing, puffing, all during the conversation. Finally Peter said, ‘Maurice, is anything wrong?’ 'No, it’s okay, Peter,’ he said. ‘I’m jogging.’ ”
As I followed Strong out of his office to catch a plane to London, where the University of Western Ontario was giving him his eighth honorary degree, a secretary looked up and said to me, “Our hero.” And sure enough, he did remind one a little of Roger Ramjet, that professional dogooding hero of the cartoons. As someone had said, the man was too good to be true.
“All my life was a preparation for this,” Strong said on the plane to London. “Camping with Eskimos in the Arctic. Setting up service stations in Africa. Seeing the good the YMCA and the churches were doing around the world. I came back to Canada in 1954 with $700 and tried for a job with the church missions, the big foundations, the External Aid Office. But 1 had no degree and they didn’t want me. It was a shock.”
He went back to Dome as executive vice-president, but on condition, he said, that he had time off for the Y and to help start the Overseas Institute of Canada. He quit in 1959 because, once again, “I had it made. It was too easy.”
He started M. F. Strong Limited, a consulting company. One customer, Ajax Petroleums, had more liabilities than assets. He took it over and made “a lot of money,” he said, building it in three years into Canadian Industrial Gas and Oil Limited, one of the biggest Canadian independents. In the same time he rose to the presidency of the YMCA in Canada, succeeding Harold Rea of Canadian Oil Companies. One night talking to Rea after dinner in Calgary’s Palliser Hotel, Strong outlined a plan to take over Power Corporation.
“I know,” Rea said, “that it doesn’t look like it, but Peter Thomson has the stock all tied up. But I’m on a three-man committee looking for a new president.”
“No thanks. A big company’s a step back.”
“Yes, but you’re interested in public service. Power Corp. will give you a national stage.”
In Montreal the board grilled Strong, then offered him the job. He said he had first to talk to Thomson, whom he liked but could see was hurt because the board didn’t want him as president. Strong went back into the boardroom. “I have obligations,” he
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told them, “and unless you let me meet them I’m not your man. I want to keep the presidency of CIGO for two more years. I want to spend half my time with the YMCA. And I want you to know I won’t stay more than five years. I want to be executive vicepresident, which will let you make Peter president, but I want it in my contract that I’ll be president in two years and I want the same authority as the president. I want bigger stock options, but at higher than market price — I don’t want to make money till the shareholders do.”
Strong switched Power from investments into the operating of growth companies. A Power vice-president, Claude Frenette, had told me in Montreal that “he foresaw trends. He was one of the first to invest in Australia. He recognized the potential in satellites. He’d start something, give it vision, then say, ‘Okay, that’s your job, Claude.' If things didn’t get done he’d take you to lunch, put the problem in perspective and make it seem smaller. That’s why we called him the resident philosopher. After lunch with Maurice I’ve seen people come in next morning at six. Faults? Yes, he must have them, but they're well hidden.” By 1966, when Pearson called Strong to CIDA, Power’s shares had risen from $42 to the equivalent of $110 and in leaving, Strong said, terminating our talk to run over his convocation speech, he dropped a $200,000 salary and $250,000 in unexpired options.
Up there on the stage of the university auditorium in London, talking in somewhat fuzzy terms on the failure of success, Strong looked selfconscious for the first time, perhaps something to do with his lack of a degree. It was the first real flaw I had noted all week but it was serious. Up to now he’d been selling the conference to the informed. But to sell the public he would have to put things plainly. If he tried to prove himself an intellectual he’d fail.
Afterward, nursing his one sherry at the president’s cocktail party, he showed that he could talk clearly if he wanted to. “I don’t think business realizes the implications of Stockholm yet. There are 3,000 chemical compounds created in North America every year and we don’t know what harm they do or where they go .. . Life-sustaining organisms are dying in the sea. We’re going to have to presume products guilty till proven innocent, not the opposite. Big shipping interests will have to be policed ...”
It was like circling a mountain, each new vista revealed new enormities. He was asking us to give up material success as our main goal, the GNP as the yardstick of progress and money as our main value. He had done it
himself, at least in part; he had realized success was not enough. Perhaps that was why he thought that change was possible.
I left him in Toronto checking on real-estate investments, and at week’s end I called at his tree-shaded home on Ottawa’s highest hill. His five children, including a Hungarian foster daughter, were out or away, and his wife, Pauline, was packing for Geneva. They had met at a gathering of student teachers in Winnipeg, she said. Maurice picked me out of the crowd and at the end of the night he came up to me and said, ‘I’m going to marry you!’ and of course I said, ‘Oh yeah?’ ”
Strong hung up on a New York call and took me up to his study where Pauline had exhumed the debris of his past for packing: his seaman’s card, his Arctic pictures, his UN pass. It
was real, that storybook background; perhaps everything was real: that unassuming self-confidence, that Roger Ramjet idealism that made you wonder how much of it was faked.
“I thought for a while we couldn’t make it,” he said, “but the papers are coming in. We’ll have time to involve every country in the process. Usually stacks of papers come in too late to be digested. There’s a lot of speeches, some generalizations, and nothing happens. This won’t be like that. We’ve got five intergovernmental groups working on soils, conservation, etc., and we’ll draft the action proposals so each government can go over them in advance. I don’t want us bogged down in deadlocks. I want to, in effect, select delegates.”
This, it appeared, was the heart of his “process,” the womb of his optimism. He had chosen a dozen people from three to five governments for each group. “People who know the subject and who represent all viewpoints. On marine pollution, say, we’ll have a British expert who influences his own government and knows how the others think. ‘That’s okay for the Swedes,’ he might say, ‘but the Japanese won’t go for it.’ Then maybe we’ll have an Indian, India’s problems are representative. By the time Stockholm rolls around they’ll be the most knowledgeable and involved, and their governments will probably want them to sit in. Some members said they might refuse to do it this way. I said, ‘Fine. Stockholm will be the biggest assembly of ministers ever held. Everybody’s contribution will be evident — and the lack of a contribution.’ ”
The sense of unreality that had lingered all week lifted. There were still a lot of uncertainties, of course. The developing countries could do an about-face and make Stockholm a confrontation. Our attitudes might be too entrenched to change. But my confidence in Strong had suddenly grown. In politics Machiavelli did better than Christ. ■
A Power Corp. vice-president says that after lunch with Strong people would be working next morning at six