I was running away from a great big cause célebre of a libel suit when I found myself writing about Maurice Strong who died this week at the age of 86. I thought he'd live forever. He was that kind of person, as strong as his name, devoted to the greater good, a man who never traveled first class but who curled up in economy as he flew around the world fixing world class problems.
Or at least that's what his friends said of him, and who would doubt them? His friends were and are famous and powerful: John Ralston Saul, the current head of Pen International wrote a nice obituary about him from Paris this week, leaving out the `controversial` parts of his story, because that's what friends do when we die. Adrienne Clarkson, the former Governor General of Canada, and Saul's spouse, was another good friend from the time when she was famous for being on television. Still others included: Pierre Trudeau, Stephen Lewis, Brian Mulroney, Paul Martin Sr. and Paul Martin Jr, Jack Austin, David Rockefeller, Laurance Rockfeller, and possibly Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, judging from the nice things he had to say at Strong`s passing. The friends list also includes many on the other side of the east/west divide, including leaders and high level bureaucrats in China and Russia. In other words, Maurice Strong was connected: this was his major talent. Connections make it possible to do things for people holding desperately to the firehose of power and afraid to let go. This is what Strong did for Haile Mengistu Mariam of Ethiopia who had made political and military use of a terrible famine. Strong got him what he wanted: a safe place to run to where his enemies could not hunt him down which allowed food to be delivered to the starving. He had practiced these skills while running Power Corporation, a big company with many subsidiaries and investments in many places in the world, a company which could, did, and does make arrangements for people running for public office or leaving it.
Like John McCloy who invented the post-war security establishment of the US and much more besides, Strong became a master of the golden braid, tying politics, to business, to the world of volunteers or civil society (as they called it in the East bloc where they didn't have one). He was a Liberal man, an oil man, and a leader in the international YMCA. He was a collector of information and of all kinds of groups, a networker who knew how to craft a brilliant message and make the powerful respond to it because he could get it amplified over and over in many places. He used these skills to further the greater good, which for him meant freedom from want by means of a stable, sustainable global economy, as opposed to little economies warring with each other, beggaring each other, and run by thugs striding roughshod over their poor. He wanted to raise all boats, because he knew what poverty is, how it kills. He grew up hungry, in the Depression, in southwestern Manitoba. His father lost his job and his mother eventually lost her life in a mental institution, her spirit crushed by want. He never finished high school. He redeemed them by rising from this dust and making himself into a magician of political arrangements with global reach.
Strong seemed to understand very young that sustained political power requires a kind of magic show that we can all believe in, supported by complicated arrangements that remain behind the curtain. In Brazil, where they are not very subtle about these things, the word used to describe this practical art is jeitinho, little arrangements. The people behind the scenes must be clever and determined persons who will roll up their sleeves and do whatever it takes to keep that magic fresh.There has probably never been a person so able at this as Maurice (pronounced Morris) Strong.
I met Strong years before I had reason to write about him. A colleague of mine was married to Jack Austin, then a Canadian Senator and cabinet minister in Pierre Trudeau`s last government. She hosted a fancy dinner in Toronto to honor Judy Chicago, the feminist artist, who was having a one person show at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Pierre Trudeau was there, squiring Sylvia Tyson. Adrienne Clarkson and John Saul were there. Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson were there. So was Maurice Strong. As the rest of us talked and argued and ate, he sat at the table reading through a big contract with his glasses down his nose. Who the heck is that? I asked my friend and editor Dawn Macdonald who was sitting close to me.
She answered as best she could but by then any answer to that question ran to a list of accomplishments many pages long. As a teenager, Strong had been taken under the wing of a man who'd married into a politically connected family who'd made their money in the oil business. They introduced him to Paul Martin Sr., and then to a friend of David Rockefeller's, who introduced him to the Rockefeller family (which had invented the global oil business) and helped him get at job at the UN. He came back to Canada and worked for Dome Petroleum. Then he was handed an " independent" oil company in which he was permitted to earn equity, at age 31, by the Canadian sub of one of the Seven Sisters. He employed Paul Martin Sr.'s son Paul there one summer. He soon moved on to Power Corporation, the greatest locus of jeitinho in Canada, hiring Paul there too (who then helped his Dad run for the Liberal leadership against Trudeau and others also supported by Power).
Strong was a business associate of External Affairs Minister Paul Martin Sr., making private investments with Martin, one of the Bronfman's key financial advisers, and real estate and movie mogul Paul Nathanson, even as he set up CIDA ( the Canadian International Development Agency) under Martin's, then Mitchel Sharp's department. At CIDA, which at first had no staff, Strong made private arrangements with SNC (yes, the precursor of scandal plagued SNC-Lavalin) to deliver aid to Africa in exchange for placing his ' people' on payrolls with no questions asked, and handing out sub contracts to Quebec companies ( which made political contributions). The point of these arrangements was to provide the leaders in new African states with whatever they wanted in exchange for not doing something Canada did not want.The goal was to prevent new African nations from recognizing Quebec as an independent country. In October, 1970, coincidental with the October Crisis, Pierre Trudeau`s government recognized China, taking the first step toward bringing China into regular diplomatic relations with the major powers in the West. Strong had connections there: he was a distant relative of Anna Louise Strong, a long-time American supporter of Mao and a friend of Chou En Lai who later ended her days there.
This China connection may be the real reason why Strong was hired away from CIDA to be Secretary General of the UN's Stockholm Conference, the first global meeting on the state of the environment. There was a lot of public talk about the danger of global warming, ocean pollution. Fledgling Canadian environment groups were given grants to fly over and protest outside the gates. But what went on behind the scenes in Stockholm was more important than what was discussed up front. Behind the scenes, negotiations between China and the US led to Nixon's triumphant trip to Beijing in 1972 opening diplomatic relations that had been closed for twenty-five years. The American media wrote about Strong with the kind of rapt wonder usually reserved for rock stars. Later, when I read those stories for research on Strong, I couldn`t believe that they never raised an obvious question.Why had this man, with his long history in the energy business, been asked to run the first global environmental conference? Why was this man asked to set up the UN Environment Programme? Wasn't that like putting the fox in charge of the hen house?
A few years later, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau asked Strong to start Canada`s national oil company, Petro-Canada. Strong did it by buying oil companies using federal loan guarantees. He built a national and international contender from nothing in under four years.
It was during his years at Petro-Canada that reporters finally began to probe the kinds of arrangements Strong was making. For example: while the rules for public office holders forbade him from doing private deals, he did them anyway. One such deal involved setting up a company that hired a plane to fly Chinese antiquities out of China just after the death of Mao but before the new regime settled into power. Apparently, the leadership under Mao had become "collectors" and as Mao's wife and the rest of the Gang of Four came under fire, someone felt the need to move these collections out of the country. Anything made of gold was melted down into nice anonymous gold bars.
Then there were the oil and land deals he did with Adnan Khashoggi, a Saudi arms dealer and Saudi political fixer of note. A while later, there was an uproar about the sale of
Petrofina to Petro-Canada. Strong had been hired as an adviser and a lot of trading went on in Quebec and in Switzerland in advance of the purchase, leading to an investigation into insider trading on which the clock was permitted to run out.
I read these stories as they were published but didn't give much more thought to Strong until I began researching a story on the Brazilian Amazon rain forest. I wanted to take my mind off that libel suit. After spending a few months following the main actors around, I found myself asking why major Canadian environmental groups, formed to deal with Canadian issues, had all abruptly switched their focus to the plight of native people in the Brazilian Amazon. They said it was all about climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions, and that the Amazon rain forest was the world's major carbon sink so it had to be defended from Brazilian miners and ranchers, by native people. But the native people were selling mahogany from the forest and taking a cut from the gold miners on their lands. And why were these Canadian groups having secret meetings with Brazilian activists in the Canadian Embassy? It soon became obvious that they were all working toward a common agenda, which involved funneling money and computers to Brazilian environmentalists under the watchful eye of its new democracy. Another international meeting on the environment was going to be held at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. Maurice Strong was going to be its Secretary General. This Rio Summit took place during \another auspicious moment in world history: the Soviet Union was about to be abolished by its own leadership and the US, for a brief moment the world`s only superpower, was about to invade Iraq to defend Kuwait from Saddam Hussein.
I watched as environmental groups worldwide began to dance to Strong's tune. Strong got them funded, he whistled up massive media coverage, especially on the brand new CNN. And as before, while organizing and running the conference, Strong remained hip deep in the oil business, though the oil business is widely regarded as the climate change villain-in-chief. While preparing for Rio, Strong also involved himself in a flaky business deal concerning a major water aquifer supplying ranchers in the western US. After the conference was over, and after Saddam Hussein's Iraq was embargoed by the UN, Strong's name would come up in reference to a scheme regarding the exchange of oil for food.
When I contacted Strong and asked to write about him for Saturday Night Magazine, he got back to me right away. When I met him in his office in Conches, just outside Geneva, he was frank. He'd been warned off me, he told me, he'd been told that I would ask any question that occurred to me, no matter how impertinent, questions he might not want to answer. He said he didn't care.
"I like risk," he said.
In other words, whatever I wrote about him simply didn't matter. I was going to deliver an audience that he wanted access to. And he was right not to worry. Very quickly I came to like him and to admire his relentless energy, his total determination. He made me rethink recent Canadian political history, and Canada's place in the world. I came to see human politics in a much broader, less judgmental way. I had once thought that corruption is by definition an evil. Strong showed me that even in the most well governed states, such as Canada, France, or Switzerland, arrangements, corrupt and otherwise, have their uses and can produce results that are the opposite of evil.
His story was so interesting but so complex that it took me years to get it all checked out. I ended up publishing a book called Cloak of Green.
This week and next in Paris, Strong's real work, the creation of a global, sustainable economic system, continues. There will be, as usual, much talk but little public action of note on the major environmental issues we face. Environmentalists, funded by governments and corporate interests, will run around with placards outside Le Bourget. Politicians will parade in front of the cameras, get their minute thirty for home consumption, and then go home worrying about whether they've promised too much. The bureaucrats will struggle to reduce loose talk to precise language that ties nobody's hands. Once again, the world's eyes will be fixed on this magic show and miss the arrangements made behind the scenes. For example, this week, China's lead role in the Paris negotiations was on the front pages. But it was the less read business sections of the newspapers that carried stories about the Chinese yuan being accepted by the World Bank as a world reserve currency. This marks the completion of Strong's, and Canada's, long-term goal to help China ascend to leading economic power status in the world trading system.
It also marks the beginning of the end of poverty in the most populous place on earth.
RIP Mr. Strong.