Eugene Whelan, a folksy farmer in a green Stetson who spent a dozen years as Canada’s flamboyant minister of agriculture, has died at the age of 88.
Kirk Walstedt, a longtime friend and former colleague, said Whelan died Tuesday night from complications from a stroke.
Whelan served as the Liberal member of Parliament for Essex-Windsor in southwestern Ontario from 1962 until 1984. In 1996 he was appointed by prime minister Jean Chrétien, a former cabinet colleague, to the Senate.
He was agriculture minister from 1972 through 1984, except for nine months in 1979-80 when the Conservatives formed the government.
With his trademark cowboy hat, his generous jowls, his bull-in-a-china-shop bluntness and his fractured grammar, Whelan became one of Canada’s best-known politicians.
In fact, when he ran for the Liberal leadership in 1984, he declared: “I don’t think there is any politician that is as well known in the world as I am.” Liberal delegates weren’t swayed: Whelan finished last in a field of seven candidates.
After receiving just 84 votes on the first ballot, Whelan supported Chretien, who ended up losing to John Turner. Turner tossed Whelan out of cabinet shortly afterward but appointed him ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.
That patronage appointment – along with many others by Turner – ultimately played a major role in the Liberal party’s loss to Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives in the 1984 election. Mulroney later rescinded the appointment, and Whelan became an agricultural consultant.
“I was fired by two prime ministers,” Whelan said in 1985, reflecting on what he called the worst year of his life as a public figure.
Whelan served as president of the World Food Council from 1983 to ‘85, One of his three daughters, Susan, was elected to the Commons in her father’s old riding in 1993.
Eugene Francis Whelan was born July 11, 1924, in Amherstburg, a small town near Windsor. His father, a farmer and municipal politician, died when he was six, and the family lost the farm and struggled to weather the Great Depression.
At 16, Whelan quit school. “My marks were no hell, and I was lippy,” he told journalist Walter Stewart for a 1974 Maclean’s magazine profile. “In one class, the teacher made me sit at the front so he could hit me with a ruler without having to get up.”
Whelan spent some time as a tool-and-die maker before returning to farming. At 21 he was a surprise winner of a school board election. He went on to become reeve and warden of Essex County before entering Parliament in 1962.
He waited 10 years before being appointed to cabinet, although he made no secret of his desire to be agriculture minister. Stewart wrote that in 1965, while standing in a line at a Liberal function, Whelan loudly complained that his wife “doesn’t understand (prime minister Lester) Pearson’s cabinet shuffle. She doesn’t understand why he’s got some of those guys where he’s got them.”
Suddenly Whelan heard Pearson’s voice over his shoulder. “And where does she want you, Gene?” the prime minister asked. Whelan grinned and said, “Home.”
After Pierre Trudeau gave Whelan the agriculture job, he began carving out a reputation as a man instinctively, firmly and forever on the side of the farmer, as the Maclean’s piece put it.
Whelan would rail at “spoiled” Canadians who complained about food costs, noting that only a fraction of the store price got into the farmer’s pocket.
“The cost of cars, fur coats, housing, booze, travel goes up and who gets excited? Nobody, because they don’t buy these things every day. Potatoes go up a few cents and my God, everybody’s crying.”
QuickSketch of Eugene Whelan
BORN: July 11, 1924, in Amherstburg, Ont.
EDUCATION: High school and vocational-technical school, Windsor, Ont., until age 16.
CAREER: Tool-and-die maker after high school; returned to family’s original business of farming.
POLITICS: Elected to local school board at 21. Later became reeve and warden. Elected Liberal MP (Essex-Windsor) in 1962. ‘63, ‘65, ’68, ‘72, 74, ‘79, ‘80. Ran for Liberal leadership, 1984; finished last among seven candidates.
CABINET: Minister of agriculture 1972-79, 1980-84.
INTERNATIONAL WORK: President, World Food Council, 1983-85. Canada’s ambassador to UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, 1984 (appointment rescinded by Conservative government).