Every few months over the past years, the telephone at the Western Producer’s Ottawa office would ring and a familiar voice would boom out.
“Wilson, this is Gene Whelan.”
Yes, I know, Gene. I would recognize that voice in a room of 1,000.
But it wasn’t just the voice that made Whelan’s communications so distinctive. It was also his use of language.
Whelan was so well known for mangling the language that among bureaucrats and journalists, it was called Whelanese.
There were mispronunciations, dropped vowels and unknown words. Sometimes “scared” became “skeert.”
A favourite recollection is the day the minister came face to face with some emerging scientific jargon.
It was at a science-research conference in early-1980s Ottawa and Whelan was the luncheon speaker.
Although he usually spoke off the cuff, this day it was a detailed talk about scientific breakthroughs on the horizon, in part because of Agriculture Canada investment in research.
So Whelan had a text. He wasn’t a good reader but he plowed through it.
He was doing fine until he got to a sentence about the emerging frontier of recombinant DNA research.
He tried the word several times — recombatant, recombint, recom … His voice trailed off.
Whelan lowered his reading glasses to the end of his nose, glared down at a gaggle of Agriculture Canada and minister’s office staff sitting in the front row and growled: “Who in hell put that word in my speech?”
The audience laughed and Whelan moved on. Somewhere in those seats, a speechwriter tried to look invisible.
Some politicians do the folksy language things for effect — drop
“‘g”s in words like “going” and sprinkle the odd “ain’t” into a speech to sound like the common folk.
But Whelanese was genuine. He was a rural farm kid with limited education (although he did collect an honourary doctorate from the University of Windsor) whose dad died when he was young and who came of age in the Depression.
This is how he learned to speak in Essex County in southwestern Ontario.
Yet instead of it being a political embarrassment or handicap, it was an asset that sealed Whelan’s reputation as a folksy agriculture minister and man of the farmers.
But anyone who thought that the mangled English signalled a simple bumpkin quickly discovered they were dealing with a smart and shrewd operator with great political instincts and a way to make complex issues sound simple.
During the constitutional wars of the early 1980s, the cerebral Pierre Trudeau tapped Whelan to be one of his missionaries selling the proposed constitutional changes to the public across the country, particularly in Western Canada.
Trudeau knew a good communicator when he saw one, even if he sometimes butchered the language.