At the end of his first day as chairman of Ontario Hydro, Maurice Strong looked out his office window at the worst snowstorm to hit Toronto in nearly half a century and agreed that Rio de Janeiro seemed a long way away. But it was only last June when Strong, 63, hosted the world’s largest-ever conference, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or Earth Summit, in the Brazilian city.
MACLEAN S HONOR ROLL 1992
Evangelist For A Cleaner World
At the end of his first day as chairman of Ontario Hydro, Maurice Strong looked out his office window at the worst snowstorm to hit Toronto in nearly half a century and agreed that Rio de Janeiro seemed a long way away. But it was only last June when Strong, 63, hosted the world’s largest-ever conference, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or Earth Summit, in the Brazilian city. About 15,000 delegates attended the conference, and thousands more took part in the adjacent Global Forum, staged by environmentalists, church groups and other private organizations. It was a dizzying 12 days, but Strong particularly remembers calling together the attending leaders, including Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, U.S. President George Bush and German President Helmut Kohl, for a private briefing immediately before the conference opened. “I was about to give them my thoughts about the conference and their responsibilities,” he said. “But as they were gathering around the huge table, I couldn’t help but reflect that, my God, here I had the leaders of the world as a captive audience. It was quite a unique experience.”
Unique experiences have been commonplace in Strong’s life. The son of an assistant railway station manager from Oak Lake, Man., (population 350) has parlayed a high-school education and a broad range of interests into a diverse and successful career in both business and public life. A onetime merchant seaman and apprentice fur trader, he got his start in business as a securities analyst in Winnipeg and Calgary, became vice-president of Dome Petroleum Ltd. in Calgary in 1954, and president of Montreal-based Power Corp. of Canada in 1963. In 1966, he established the Canadian International Development Agency, the federal foreign aid body, and in 1976 was named chairman of Petro-Canada. For the United Nations, Strong’s posts included organizing the world body’s first conference on the environment, at Stockholm in 1972; serving as undersecretary general from 1985 to 1987 and hosting the Earth Summit. Strong and his wife,
Hanne Mar strand, returned to Canada in October from the United States. But while at Ontario Hydro, Strong says, he will continue to chair the Earth Council Foundation, a private initiative aimed at prodding governments into honoring their Rio commitments.
The idea for the summit, he says, came out of a lunch meeting about six years ago with Ingvar Carlsson, then-Prime Minister of Sweden. Concerned that global environmental problems were deepening despite progress in some areas, the two decided to use the 20th anniversary of the Stockholm conference to renew the world community’s pledge to clean up the planet. Carlsson took the issue to the UN General Assembly, which formally approved a conference on both environment and development run by Strong. “It’s really through our economic behavior that we affect the environment,” Strong said, “so any major effort to
improve the global environment has got to be done by major changes in the economy.”
Strong said that the Summit succeeded in gaining political approval, and worldwide attention, for many of its goals, but he admitted that initiatives on global warming and biodiversity were weakened by lack of U.S. support. And although the United Nations has established a commission to monitor the implementation of Agenda 21, Rio’s 700-page blueprint for environmental renewal, it has no power to enforce that blueprint. “Rio helped to set direction and energize the political process, but its promise will not be realized unless people make it happen where they are—in corporations, in communities, in their own lives,” Strong says. “And I see coming back to Canada and taking on this role with Hydro as getting back into the trenches and making it happen.” In his new job, balancing demands to run the heavily indebted, fuel-burning enterprise more efficiently against his commitment to do it cleanly, Strong may well have set himself his toughest task in a life full of meeting challenges.
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