More than met the eye to Whelan

Eugene Whelan will be remembered mostly for his green Stetson, inability to speak either of Canada’s official languages and his cheerleading for the farm community.

Too bad because there was a lot more to the former Liberal agriculture minister, who died just weeks after his Conservative counterpart John Wise. He was a lot politically shrewder than he ever acted or got credit for, and his interest in politics went a lot deeper than just agriculture. Although he never articulated the agri-food community concept that we now hear all the time, he spoke of it indirectly often enough, trying to link the health of the Canadian food industry to the well-being of the country’s farmers.

Like Wise, he held the portfolio when agriculture ministers were still expected to manage the expectations of rural voters, which the great minds in Ottawa saw as just farmers. It would take almost two decades after Whelan and Wise left politics before the agri-food industry idea finally sunk in. The 2008 recession drove the point home. As Whelan would have said, “Even a blind economist on a galloping horse could have seen that.”

Whelan stories would easily fill a page of this newspaper. A favourite comes from another Trudeau-era cabinet minister Romeo LeBlanc. When the prime minister asked him after the 1974 election to be fisheries minister, LeBlanc replied that he wanted to be the minister of fishermen like Whelan was the minister of farmers. The phone line went silent for minute before Trudeau cleared his throat. “I don’t know if I can stand two of you.” That would have been a big compliment from Trudeau.

Another was watching Whelan literally chasing Trudeau adviser Jerry Grafstein around the Hall of Honour in the Centre Block of Parliament at the Press Gallery dinner in the early 1980s trying to convince him the government was mishandling rural issues.

Some readers will remember listening to Whelan deliver a speech. A former speechwriter says the trick was to load up the text with numbers and examples. Ideas would come to Whelan at the podium and he would soar off on a tangent until the thought lost momentum. He would glance down at his speech searching for his next idea.

When the Prairies were gripped in a severe drought, Whelan opined it was time for him to do a western tour because it always rained when he was out west. While he didn’t break the drought when he got there, he did get wet.

During the meeting of federal and provincial agriculture ministers in Yorkton, Sask., Whelan and his officials were eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant when a middle-aged farmer approached the minister with a grievance involving the federal government, the Canadian Wheat Board and something else I no longer remember.

Whelan sympathetically listened to the man, described how he would fix the problem in question except for the major hurdle that the issue was in Otto Lang’s domain as he was the minister responsible for the CWB. Dividing up the agriculture and wheat board portfolios only showed Ottawa’s ignorance about the farm industry to Whelan. So he made a good friend of the farmer and passed the blame to Lang. There were smiles all over the restaurant.

Whelan once told me that he’d asked legendary agriculture minister Jimmy Gardiner if he’d ever aspired to another cabinet post. “No one ever asked me,” Gardiner replied. Whelan’s tone in relating the story indicated he too regretted never having been given the opportunity.

When Whelan addressed farm groups, he would refer to himself several times as your agriculture minister. He meant it. He stood his ground on Parliament Hill when angry dairy farmers threw an assortment of milk products at him.

Whelan was one of the first ministers I covered after coming to Parliament Hill with the Canadian Press news service in 1975. He always remembered what you’d written and never hesitated to get in the last word.

Once I put in the lead of a story that Whelan had turned a deaf ear to protests about something. Whelan did have hearing problems and I was criticized for being insensitive. However, Whelan thought it was hilarious.

You will read many tributes to lean mean Gene. I will leave you with this one from the current minister, Gerry Ritz. “Eugene was planted firmly on the side of farmers. His more than 12 years as agriculture minister serve as a clear testament to the passion and dedication he brought to the job every day. I am privileged to continue Mr. Whelan’s efforts in putting farmers first, because as Eugene would agree, a strong farm gate is the backbone of our economy.”

Whelan didn’t provoke neutral feelings and left behind many fans and critics. His imprint on Canadian agriculture deserves remembering. Farmers never had a better friend.

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