Goodbye to Jim MacNeill, Habitat I Commissioner General, April 22, 1928 – March 5, 2016

Jim MacNeill in 2015

Dear friends of Habitat ’76,

My friend Jim MacNeill, who served as Commissioner General of Habitat I (the 1976 UN Habitat Conference on Human Settlements) and was one of the key intellectual and administrative forces behind it, died in Ottawa last Saturday at the age of 87. Pneumonia had got the better of him. It is a heartbreaking loss to me and to many, many people. Among other sadnesses, I am so sorry Jim did not live to see the publication of the book on Habitat that he so patiently helped me with. Fortunately, key parts of the story are told in Jim’s words.

Below (after the photo of Jim at Habitat Forum in 1976 in Vancouver) I have reprinted his obituary which has now been published. Those who remember Jim can leave their memories of him at this link.

Jim stick-handled Habitat right from its inception at Stockholm in ’72, helping to organize it both administratively and intellectually. It was Jim who convinced Barbara Ward to write its theme book, “The Home of Man.” After 1976 he went on to work at the international level in framing global environmental policy. He was lead author of “Our Common Future,” also known as the Brundtlant Report, which laid out a path for global environmental protection and which has influenced all subsequent policy.

Jim had framed Canada’s very first environmental policy in the late 60s, making Canada one of the first countries in the world to have one. Jim had come out of the Canadian dust bowl and then later was an adviser to the Tommy Douglas government in Saskatchewan, and this helps to explain his deep understanding of the human cost of any failure of environmental stewardship; like his great friend Barbara Ward, he understood that equality and environmentalism are not opposed interests but are in fact inextricably linked. He knew this clearly 40 years ago; the world has only begun to catch up.

Jim was so generous with his time for this Habitat book. And he was thrilling to talk to,  with a seeming photographic memory for things that happened forty years ago including the minutiae of negotiations and the geopolitical complexities. His every turn of phrase was interesting. On the phone he spoke extemporaneously in publishable paragraphs, which is certainly handy when you’re writing a book. Even though I am a neophyte in so many areas where Jim was an expert—and he was an expert in so many—he would patiently explain things without dumbing anything down. He was the sort of person who treats you respectfully and as a peer, as you long as you are serious. Talking to him was simply fascinating partly because he himself was fascinated by everything.

He could be steely too. I was sent off on a wild goose chase by someone Jim had suggested I talk to, but whose account of what happened at Habitat contradicted Jim’s (Jim turned out to be right, of course). After asking Jim about this contradiction a couple times Jim made it very clear that I could keep going down the wrong path if I wanted, but it would always be the wrong path. He was charming about it but very definite, and I suddenly understood how he had managed to achieve as much as he did. I could see how he would stick to his convictions, not shying away from conflict, but without being the slightest bit unkind. It struck me how rare this is.

I think readers are going to enjoy the sections of the book that are narrated by Jim.

I’m really going to miss him.

Barney Danson, Jim MacNeill, Art Lee, ?, Al Clapp (facing away)
Above: Jim MacNeill (big glasses) with Barney Danson (speaking) and MP Art Lee, all talking to Al Clapp (facing them, in cap) in Hangary 5, to be the Habitat Forum Plenary Hall at Jericho Beach

James William MacNeill

April 22, 1928 – March 5, 2016

James ‘Jim’ William MacNeill, O.C., D.Sc., LL.D.

Environmental Pioneer, International Public Servant, author, mentor, friend, husband, father and grandfather extraordinaire, Jim MacNeill, died peacefully, surrounded by family, on March 5, 2016, after a brief battle with pneumonia.

Jim was born April 22nd, 1928 in Mazenod Saskatchewan to William Leslie MacNeill and Helga Ingeborg Nohlgren. He was an ecological refugee at the age of 3, escaping the dustbowl for the parklands of Sturgis. Jim courageously met numerous life-changing challenges throughout his long life. He took each roadblock and used it to propel himself to greater heights without a whiff of self-pity. Jim had an indomitable spirit. Always curious, never idle, he loved ideas, travel, theatre, debate, great food, fine wine and the company of good friends & family. His eyes twinkled, his laugh was contagious and he had the best eyebrows on the planet.

From the University of Saskatchewan Jim received Bachelor of Science degrees for both Physics and Mathematics in 1949 and a Bachelor in Mechanical Engineering in 1958. In 1951 he earned a Graduate Diploma in Economics and Political Science from the University of Stockholm, Sweden.

Jim began his public service career in Saskatchewan in 1952 as a research economist for T. C. Douglas. After distinguishing himself in his home province he moved, in 1964, to Ottawa where he began 13 years of exemplary work in the Canadian civil service as one of the famous “Saskatchewan Mafia”. In 1969 Jim was appointed “Special Advisor” by Prime Minister Trudeau. Over the next two years, he developed the Government’s basic position on the environment and the constitution while writing his first book, Environmental Management. In 1975 the Prime Minister asked Jim to take on the role of Canadian Commissioner General and Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary with responsibility for Canada’s national and international preparations for the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat) held in Vancouver in May 1976.

In 1977, after a well deserved sabbatical, Jim moved to the International arena serving seven years as Director of Environment for the OECD in Paris. In 1984, Jim was named Secretary General of the World Commission on Environment and Development. He was the chief architect and principal author of the Commission’s world-acclaimed report Our Common Future which established the concept of sustainable development. In the late 90’s Jim chaired the World Bank’s Independent Inspection Panel to which people adversely affected by Bank-financed projects could appeal for an investigation of their complaints over the heads of their government and Bank Management.

Over the years Jim served as advisor to many organizations including The Institute for Research on Public Policy, The International Development Research Center, The United Nations Development Programme, Ontario Hydro, The Volvo Foundation’s Environment Prize, and The International Institute for Sustainable Development. He played a key role in the development of The Earth Charter. Jim was the recipient of many Awards and Honourary Doctorates. His appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada was the highlight of a lifetime. Jim has left this world a far better place through his countless contributions. We have lost a giant.

Jim is survived by his wife, Phyllis (née Ferguson); his daughters, Catherine (Michael) and Robin (Jamie); and the “lights of his life”, his grandchildren, Zack (Sarah), Clark, Farley, Aiden, Will and Audrey Lynne. Jim was predeceased by his son Ward.

Special thanks to the team at the Ottawa General Hospital’s ICU for their wonderful care.

Friends are invited to Beechwood Cemetery, 280 Beechwood Avenue, Ottawa, Ontario (866-990-9530), on Monday, April 25, 2016, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. A Celebration of Life will begin at 2 p.m. with reception to follow. In lieu of flowers, please make a donation to a charity that supports Jim’s mission to make our home, this earth, safer for those who are yet to come. Please raise a glass to Jim each year on Earth Day – so fittingly his birthday as well.


  1. Sanjay Sharma

    Sad To know this.

  2. Sanjay Sharma

    I was at IIT-Roorkee (then University of Roorkee, India) as a student of PG in Urban & Rural Planning when I had come to know of Habitat I & Barbara Ward’s works. Knowing that Jim was the motivational force behind Habitat I, makes me bow to the soul in honour!

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