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Eugene Whelan is seen in a November 2006 file photo. (Ian Barrett/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Eugene Whelan is seen in a November 2006 file photo. (Ian Barrett/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

EUGENE WHELAN

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

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.

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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 Amherstburg 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.

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