Maurice Strong, one of the world’s most influential environmental and political activists, died on November 27, 2015. Born in Oak Lake, Manitoba, on April 29, 1929, Strong began what would become a highly successful career in the oil industry in his early 20s. Shortly afterward, he and his first wife, Pauline, took a two-year trip around the world, which gave him the opportunity to travel extensively in East Africa, among other countries.

It was in Nairobi, Kenya that Strong was first introduced to the work of the YMCA, which inspired him to become a volunteer when he returned home to Canada in 1954. In his 2010 book, Where On Earth Are We Going, Strong wrote: “Remembering what the YMCAs had accomplished in Kenya and India, I walked into their Calgary office, introduced myself to the general secretary, Bill Kingersley, told him how impressed I’d been with the work of the YMCA in my international travels and volunteered to help. Kingersley immediately put me to work on the local World Service Committee.”

The following year, in the summer of 1955, Strong attended the YMCA’s 100th anniversary in Paris. In 1961, he was the Canadian delegate at the summer world conference of the YMCA in Geneva, Switzerland, where he was elected chair of the World Alliance of YMCAs’ Extension and Intermovement Aid Committee. Several years later, Strong was elected President of YMCA Canada. 

He and Pauline also adopted a foster child from Hungary through their work with the YMCA in helping to resettle Hungarian refugees. Strong’s work with the YMCA gave him experience participating in, and chairing, international meetings, and introduced him to the world of international development. In the meantime, his childhood fascination with nature evolved into an interest in conservation.

In 1972 he acted as Secretary-General of the United Nations Stockholm Conference, which was recognized as launching a new era of international environmental diplomacy. Later that year, the UN General Assembly established the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and elected Strong to head it. Strong later organized the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, which led to the launch of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Recognized with dozens of honours and awards for his many contributions throughout his lifetime, Strong’s life was celebrated on Wednesday, January 27 at an invitation-only event in Ottawa hosted by the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul. Laura Palmer Korn, President and CEO (Acting) of YMCA Canada, represented Canada’s YMCAs at the tribute.