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Saturday March 2, 2013

Man in the green Stetson brought verve and sass to public life during Trudeau era

Long-time Liberal agriculture minister was 'passionate, opinionated, progressive' and a powerful advocate for farmers

Pierre Trudeau may have contemplated his political future during a walk in the snow, but it was his long-serving agriculture minister, Eugene Whelan, who helped initiate the fall of the Soviet Union with a stroll in the garden of his Amherstburg, Ont., farm. In the late 1970s, Cold War rivalries had gone back into a deep freeze: Ronald Reagan was promoting a Star Wars version of anti-ballistic missiles from the White House, a belligerent Margaret Thatcher was in Downing Street and the Soviets had marched into Afghanistan, precipitating a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics by a slew of Western countries.

Nearly a decade earlier, the aging leaders of what Mr. Reagan liked to call the "evil empire" had ostracized a peacenik, one-legged war veteran named Alexander Yakovlev by making him ambassador to Ottawa - the Soviet version of sending somebody to Coventry.

In the Canadian capital, Mr. Yakovlev made friends with an unlikely pair of politicos. The first was the ascetic Mr. Trudeau, who had been aggressively pursuing The Third Option in Europe and Asia, an alternative diplomatic policy to pandering to American hegemony. They chatted about novels by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, according to an article by Christopher Shulgan in Saturday Night magazine.

The ambassador's second pal was Mr. Whelan, the folksy advocate for women and champion of farmers, who connected with him on all matters agricultural - back in the days when Canada shipped a lot of wheat to the then Soviet Union.

The friendship between the Soviet "exile" and the Canadian cabinet minister led to Mikhail Gorbachev, then a junior member of the politburo and in charge of managing the Soviet farm system. After a meeting in Moscow in 1981, the engaging Mr. Gorbachev accepted the gregarious Mr. Whelan's invitation to tour Canadian farming operations in May, 1983. He was the most senior Soviet official to visit Canada in a dozen years.

That 10-day cross-country trip included shopping in grocery stores, tours of manufacturing plants, visits to Alberta ranches, a one-on-one with Mr. Trudeau - the first Western leader Mr. Gorbachev had ever met - and tentative, and then open, discussions en route with Mr. Yakovlev about the failures of communism and the need for restructuring Soviet society and government. The key conversation took place in Mr. Whelan's backyard in Amherstberg while the future Soviet leader and his confidant waited for their host to arrive home from Ottawa.

The two Soviets ditched their bodyguards and strolled around the garden like characters in a Jane Austen novel, engrossed in private and deep discussions about what they had seen and how to apply it to their own country. Years later, Mr. Yakovlev estimated that 80 per cent of the ideas the two men discussed in Mr. Whelan's back yard were incorporated into perestroika.

At the time, few in Canada realized the key diplomatic role Mr. Whelan had played, first in giving Mr. Gorbachev an inside look at ordinary Canadian life, and then by providing the opportunity for a private meeting with Mr. Yakovlev, the man who would become known as the godfather of Glasnost.

Facilitating that meeting of minds is as integral a part of Mr. Whelan's political legacy as his shamrock green Stetson, his support for farmers and supply-management policies and his advocacy for feeding the poor of the world.

Mr. Whelan was a die-hard Liberal. "The Conservatives have the right wing, The NDP have the left wing. The Liberals have two wings and that's why we can fly," he loved to boast. First elected to the House of Commons in 1962, he served under two prime ministers, Lester Pearson and Mr. Trudeau, and is one of the remaining bridges between the young men, including John Turner, Herb Gray, Donald Macdonald and Jean Chrétien, who went to Ottawa in the early 1960s, and Justin Trudeau, front-runner in the current Liberal leadership contest.

Justin Trudeau's mother, Margaret, took a photograph of her baby son sitting on Mr. Whelan's lap in his role as Santa Claus at the annual Parliamentary Christmas Party in the mid-1970s. After Mr. Whelan died at home on Feb. 19 at age 88 of complications from heart disease and colon cancer, Mr. Trudeau tweeted: "My thoughts this morning are for my old friend Eugene Whelan. A strong voice for Canadian farmers, dear to my family. #goodbyegreenhat."

As self-deprecating as he was partisan, Mr. Whelan derided his non-existent French and his rough-hewn English by claiming: "Canada has two official languages and I don't speak none of them." In one of his last public speeches at the Rotary Club in Chatham-Kent in 2004, he opined about the effects of NAFTA and globalization on manufacturing jobs in Ontario: "In the old days we brought the slaves to the work, but now we're bringing the work to the slave."

His loyalties were as ferocious as his feuds, including his headline-making spats with consumer advocate Beryl Plumptre in the battle to confront stagflation (a combination of high unemployment and soaring inflation) in the mid-1970s. Ms. Plumptre, an Australian-born economist who had studied under John Maynard Keynes, was best known as a high-level volunteer and the wife of a Canadian diplomat when Mr. Trudeau named her chair of the Food Prices Review Board.

In style and in ambition, she and the rough-hewn Mr. Whelan were bound to clash. He wanted support for farmers and marketing boards to set production quotas and prices; she wanted competition and lower costs for consumers. "Egg-gate" brought their rivalry to a head in 1974. So many eggs were being produced at a cost consumers were refusing to pay that food inspectors uncovered 28 million eggs rotting in warehouses.

Faced with a triumphant Mrs. Plumptre, the ever quotable Mr. Whelan retorted, "I'd like to take Mrs. Plumptre into a laying house," and was astonished when the press took him to the woodshed over his unintended double entendre.

Mr. Whelan's funeral in Amherstburg last Saturday was a meeting of the old Liberal guard. Both Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Gray gave eulogies, turning what could have been a sombre occasion into a celebration of a singular and well-loved human being. "He was passionate, committed, opinionated, progressive, hardworking ... and most of all committed to his community and his country," said Mr. Gray about the man with whom he shared an office and a secretary after they both arrived in Ottawa as rookie MPs in 1962.

For Mr. Chrétien, who was first elected a year later, Mr. Whelan was an anglophone from a similiar background, who shared his own sense of loyalty, work ethic and compassion. "He was honest, sincere, outspoken ... and he was very persistent," Mr. Chrétien said in an affectionate and humorous eulogy. "It was not easy to shut him up."

Eugene Francis Whelan was born on the family farm on July 11, 1924, near Amherstburg in Southwestern Ontario. His father, Charles, was a farmer and a municipal politician, who died of cancer when Eugene, the middle of nine children, was six. For a while, his widowed mother, Frances, had to go on social assistance, but she never lost the family farm and she kept her children together during the direst days of the Depression.

Eugene, who began his education in a one-room rural school, gave up the books when he was 16 to become a welder and a tool-and-die maker. "My marks were no hell, and I was lippy," he told journalist Walter Stewart in a profile in Maclean's magazine in 1974. "In one class, the teacher made me sit at the front so he could hit me with a ruler without having to get up." That was one lesson the burly and blunt-spoken Mr. Whelan never absorbed: He spoke his mind in public and private for the rest of his life.

He first threw his hat into local politics as a trustee for the Catholic school board and then worked his way up to reeve and warden of Essex County before running as a Liberal in the 1959 provincial election. He lost that race, but found his wife in the campaign office. On April 30, 1960, he married Elizabeth Pollinger, the daughter of immigrants from what was then Yugoslavia, and a legal secretary to a big Liberal supporter.

Romance blossomed over Mr. Whelan's campaign speeches, which she typed for the neophyte candidate. They subsequently had three daughters: Theresa, Susan (who represented her father's old riding from 1993-2004) and Catherine.

Electorally, Mr. Whelan fared much better when he switched to federal politics, winning the riding of Essex, a seat he held until he retired from elected politics in 1984. Chafed that Mr. Pearson never appointed him to Cabinet, Mr. Whelan came into his own as a hard-working and popular minister under Mr. Trudeau. He appointed him Agriculture Minister in 1972 and kept him there for 12 years - except for the brief period when the Liberals were out of power in 1979-80.

After Mr. Trudeau retired, Mr. Whelan ran for the leadership, losing on the first ballot with only 84 votes, an experience he described as one of the most humiliating of his career. He then switched to Mr. Chrétien, rather than front-runner John Turner, demonstrating once again that loyalty counted more to him than career advancement.

Mr. Whelan was dumped from Cabinet by Mr. Turner, another slight in what Mr. Whelan later said was the worst year of his life. He resigned his seat before the snap election Mr. Turner called that summer and accepted a Liberal patronage appointment to Rome as Canada's inaugural ambassador to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), only to be fired by the new prime minister, Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney.

It was an ignominious political end for a man who had served his country well and faithfully, but Mr. Whelan never abandoned farmers here or abroad (heading up a number of local and international anti-famine and food management initiatives) or the Liberal Party. He and Mr. Turner pasted over their differences to join forces in 1988. "I definitely wanted him to run again," Mr. Turner said in an interview. "He was a good member of Parliament, a great constituency man ... his company was sometimes difficult, but I always enjoyed it."

Although Mr. Whelan didn't throw his Stetson into the electoral ring, he did stump the countryside for his former nemesis, arguing the pitfalls of free trade in an unsuccessful attempt to keep Mr. Mulroney from winning a second landslide majority.

Mr. Chrétien, who restored the Liberal fortunes in 1993, appointed him to the Senate three years later, a honour Mr. Whelan accepted even though he had spent years deriding the unelected body. In fact, when he had to retire at the mandatory retirement age of 75, he joked that he should never have voted to impose an age limit on serving in the Upper Chamber.

Mr. Whelan leaves his wife, Elizabeth, his three daughters and his extended family.

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