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Colourful, but effective

Both Alex Binkley and Allan Dawson relate some memories of the accomplishments of the late Eugene Whelan elsewhere in this issue, but we can’t let him leave us without noting one ambition he failed to achieve. Whelan desperately wanted to be minister responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board (never making a secret of it) but his boss Pierre Trudeau figured a westerner should have the job.

The pickings of western MPs got a little slim after the 1980 election (as in none east of Winnipeg), so Trudeau turned to a senator instead. He chose Hazen Argue, the former CCF MP who had crossed the floor to join the Liberals in 1961. Argue and Whelan were much like two peas in a pod — old-time politicians who at first glance looked a little slow, sleepy and heavy following too many years of rubber-chicken dinners. But put a microphone in front of them and it was as if they’d been poked with a cattle prod, coming to life and prepared to deliver sound bites — or more accurately, full meals — on whatever subject you liked.

The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and in retaliation the U.S. decided to punish the Soviets with a partial grain embargo. Canada decided to support the move by limiting exports as well, but the government agreed that it would compensate farmers for the income loss. After some (probably dubious) calculation, it was decided to pay $81 million into wheat board pool accounts, but that also included the Ontario Wheat Board. Whelan was responsible for it, so the announcement had to be a joint one by both he and Argue.

It was made in Winnipeg, with the two on a raised platform at the front of a room usually used for citizenship court, sitting together at a table surrounded by a curtain. They were in their finest form, each trying to hog as much attention as possible.

After it was over I went over to say hello to Whelan’s press secretary, who was looking a little perturbed.

“Did you see what those two were doing?” she asked. I hadn’t, but with a side view of the table where she could see their legs behind the curtain, she had.

“They were trying to kick each other’s chairs off the back of the platform for the whole press conference.”

Recalling that and other colourful Whelan stories goes beyond fond reminiscences. It’s hard to imagine two different individuals, but Pierre Trudeau gave Eugene Whelan his job and let him keep it despite his loose-cannon tendencies. That wouldn’t happen today, when ministers are robotically controlled by the prime minister’s office and much of their communication is through email composed by their staff.

And Whelan got things done. He (with Trudeau’s blessing, it must be said) was responsible for providing many Canadian farmers with the longest, most stable and most profitable period in history. After years of interprovincial “chicken and egg wars” and fruitless attempts to market dairy products into a subsidy-depressed world market, Whelan managed to implement the supply management system that is still in place today.

Quite an accomplishment. Dairy and poultry producers should wish him a fond farewell.

Worth a read

Sadly, Canada’s hog producers are not in the fortunate position of their supply-managed colleagues, and if their economic circumstances are not bad enough, they are sometimes unjustifiably assailed in the mainstream media for their environmental and animal welfare practices.

Therefore it’s worth mentioning when someone in the national media takes a balanced and sympathetic look at the hog industry. “How Canada produces 5 slices of bacon for every person on the planet” by Charles Wilkins in last week’s Globe and Mail Report on Business magazine is an excellent example.

In a comprehensive piece of more than 6,000 words, Wilkins talks to some of the players in the Manitoba industry, and provides a frank but sympathetic assessment of their situation. In the past, some in the hog industry have tended to have a “bunker mentality” when approached by the media, which reinforces the perception that they have something to hide. That doesn’t appear to have been the case with those that Wilkins spoke to for this piece, including producers Rick Bergmann, Marg Rempel and George Matheson, as well as Laurie Connor and Derek Brewin of the University of Manitoba and Andrew Dickson of the Manitoba Pork Council. Particular credit should go to HyLife’s Denis Vielfaure, who took Wilkins on a tour of the company’s killing plant inNeepawa.

The article is a useful outside perspective on the state of the industry, and the reader is left with the impression that everyone is making money except the farmers. That’s not news to them, but perhaps it is news that the best public relations strategy is to come out of the bunker and speak openly about the realities of their industry.

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