Strong grew up in a poor family in a small town in Manitoba during the Great Depression. 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 a regular income for the first time, after his father joined the Royal Canadian Air Force following the outbreak of World War II, he was struck by the irony that it took a war to produce the jobs and the economic resources that were not available during the depression.
Despite their poverty, his working father and his mother, a former teacher, gave their children a sound but austere family life. His school principal, a socialist, subjected Strong to a combination of strict discipline and accelerated learning opportunities. Strong 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.
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 whom 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 Arctic climate.
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 Strong to join him when he returned to Toronto where he lived with his wife, an heiress to an oil fortune.
Through the Richardsons, Strong met with a leading UN official who arranged for him, in 1947, to have a temporary 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 his 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 J.P. 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.
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 and then President of Power Corporation of Canada in 1961 through 1966. His position at Power Corporation attracted national interest which enabled his views on Canada’s role in the world to be heard.
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 Sr., and Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. In 1966, Pearson invited him to come into the government as a Deputy Minister with responsibility for the External Aid Office. Under Strong's leadership, the role of the office was enlarged to become the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the country's lead agency for international development. Strong served as President and Chairman of CIDA. This enabled him to return to the United Nations as a Canadian delegate, which enabled him to establish close ties, particularly with its Development Program.
In the meantime, his fascination with nature had evolved into an interest in conservation and the newly emerging environment movement which he saw 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.
In 1971, with his then wife, Pauline, Strong took a trip around the world, most of which was spent in Africa where he became impressed with the work of the YMCA. On his return to Canada, he volunteered to work with the YMCA in its World Service Program, becoming its national President and Chairman of the Extension Committee of the World Alliance of YMCAs. Here he 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 distant family relationship. Strong welcomed this opportunity to develop his links with the family of Anna Louise, whose life and relationships with China were a great source of inspiration to him.
When on the initiative of Sweden the U. N. General Assembly decided to convene the first major United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, popularly known as "Stockholm" among environmentalists, UN Secretary-General U Thant invited Strong to lead it as Secretary-General of the Conference.
As preparations for the Stockholm Conference, in 1971, Strong commissioned a report on the state of the planet. Entitled “Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet” , co-authord by Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos. The report summarized the findings of 152 leading experts from 58 countries in preparation for the first UN meeting on the environment, held in Stockholm in 1972. This was the world's first "state of the environment" report.
The Stockholm Conference put the environment issue on the international agenda and confirmed its close link with development. It led to the establishment by the UN General Assembly in December 1972 of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, and the election of Strong to head it. UNEP was the first UN agency to be headquartered in a developing nation. As head of UNEP, Strong convened the first international expert group meeting on climate change.
In 1976, at the request of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Strong returned to Canada to head the newly created national oil company, Petro-Canada . 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, he acquired effective control and became Chairman of AZL Resources Inc., which had large holdings of ranch lands in the United States, including a major land development, American Water Development Incorporated (AWDI) in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. This was underlain by one of the country’s largest underground water reservoirs, which, under Colorado law, others could claim if the landowners failed to develop or use it. Accordingly, Strong instituted a program through a company, American Water Development, to develop the property on a sustainable basis and use it locally. When his partners opted for an alternative plan to export the water from the valley, Strong donated his interest to charity. After a lengthy trial, Colorado courts ruled against AWDI's application and required payment of the objectors' legal fees, 3.1 million dollars.
Maurice Strong was the commissioners of the World Commission on Environment and Development, set up as an independent body by the United Nations in 1983. Chaired by Gro Harlem Bruntland, then Prime Minister of Norway, its brief was to re-examine the critical environment and development problems on the planet and formulate realistic proposals to solve. Strong played a key role in ensuring that the work of the Commission was open, visible and participatory. The Commission held Public Hearings, where senior government representatives, scientists and experts, researchers, representatives of non-governmental organizations and the general public openly expressed their concerns and submitted their views and advice on issues of common concerns. It was a new departure for the UN system.
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 it produced Agreement on Conventions on Climate Change and Biodiversity 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.
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 Africa-America 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 His public service activities were carried out on a pro bono basis made possible by his business activities, which included Chairman of the International Advisory Group of CH2M Hill, Strovest Holdings Inc., Technology Development Inc., Zenon Environmental Inc., and most recently, Cosmos International, and the China Carbon Corporation.
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.
Strong played a major role in changing the attitude of the World Bank to non-governmental organizations. He lobbied to transform the World Bank from an enemy to recognizing the importance of environmental groups. Until the mid-1990s, environmentalists charged the World Bank with financing the destruction of the world environment.
In 1999, at the request of then UN Secretary-General, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, he 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.
Strong’s business activities which were always designed to support his public service interests were not always successful. Two companies, with which he was associated, Molten Metals Technology Inc and Cordex Petroleum ended in bankruptcy. Strong and his family were major losers in both of these, but their losses have been more than balanced by the success of most of the businesses with which he has been associated.
From 2003 and 2005, Strong served as the personal envoy UN 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.
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.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan, near the end of his term, paid the following tribute to Maurice 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.
Maurice Strong has received a number of honors, awards and medals for his supposed "service to humankind and the planet". He has also received 53 honorary doctorate degrees and honorary Visiting Professorships at 7 universities.
Among the honors and awards:
Other honors and awards include: