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.