TORONTO – 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, told The Canadian Press Whelan died Tuesday night from complications from a stroke.
Whelan had emergency surgery in February 1997 to replace part of his aorta and repair his heart valve, but Walstedt said his friend of about 60 years had ‘‘recovered quite nicely from that.‘‘
‘‘His health as pretty good up until last summer when he had a stroke.‘‘
Whelan served as the Liberal MP for Essex-Windsor in southwestern Ontario from 1962 until 1984. He served as agriculture minister under then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau from 1972 through 1984, except for nine months in 1979-80 when the Conservatives took office.
Walstedt said Whelan would often say he was one of the few cabinet ministers Trudeau could send to Western Canada who would be respected and liked.
Walstedt also told The Canadian Press by telephone that Whelan’s legacy as agriculture minister will be the marketing boards he put in place.
‘‘He (Whelan) also said that a farmer could get a good return on his investment, the consumer could get a good quality product at a reasonable price … everybody won.‘‘
But to the average Canadian, Whelan was perhaps best known for his trademark cowboy hat, his generous jowls, his bull-in-a-china-shop bluntness and his fractured grammar.
”He was a very grassroots type of individual. He was very down to earth and everyone respected him, right from the top on down. Everyone could identify with him,” said Walstedt.
”He knew how to make a point or address an issue that everybody could understand _ he often said he spoke in ’Whelanese.’”
Whelan was keenly aware that he was 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.
Whelan 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.”
In 1996, Whelan was appointed by Prime Minister Jean Chretien, a former cabinet colleague, to the Senate.