Farmers came first for Eugene Whelan

Contributions of former agriculture minister remembered

When former federal agriculture minister Eugene Whelan was buried in Amherstburg, Ont., Feb. 23, former prime minister Jean Chrétien was there to say goodbye to his old friend “Gino.”

Whelan, a one-year veteran of Parliament not known for his strong command of proper English, took rookie MP and unilingual francophone Chrétien under his wing when he was first elected in 1963 and helped him learn English.

They remained comrades for the next 40 years and in 1996, Chrétien appointed his old friend to the Senate.

Whelan’s death Feb. 19 from the after-effects of a stroke brought tributes from across the political spectrum.

He was agriculture minister for almost 11 years — 1972-79 and 1980-84 — the third longest term in Canadian history. He served as president of the World Food Council in 1983-85 and championed farmers and supply management in urban-dominated Liberal governments under prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

Whelan was an MP for 22 years and ran unsuccessfully for the Liberal leadership in 1984. He was dropped from cabinet and appointed by winner John Turner as Canada’s first ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. Incoming Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney fired him before he could move to Rome.

“I was fired by two prime ministers in one year,” Whelan later groused.

However, he remained popular in the Liberal party and his reputation as a federal minister who stood up for farmers grew as the years passed.

“His incredible contributions to agriculture and rural Canadians will long outlive this shining example of a man,” interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said last week.

Conservative agriculture minister Gerry Ritz joined in the tribute.

“Eugene was a strong voice for Canadian farmers for decades, serving in both municipal and federal politics,” Ritz said in a statement.

“As Canada’s agriculture minister and his trademark green Stetson, Eugene was planted firmly on the side of farmers.”

Ritz said he followed in Whelan’s footsteps of “putting farmers first.”

In interviews during his later years, Whelan had little good to say about the Ritz agenda, which he saw as putting agri-business first.

The Canadian Foodgrains Bank praised Whelan for his international development work and concern for small-scale farmers around the world.

CFB executive director Jim Cornelius said in a statement Whelan took a keen interest in the church-supported international aid agency when it formed in 1983.

“He would call up or send notes when he thought something should be done differently.”

National Farmers Union president Terry Boehm said in a statement that Whelan remained concerned about farmers and critical of government policy throughout his life.

“He connected with people in an honest, generous and humorous way.”

Former NFU leader and now 20-year Liberal MP Wayne Easter said that despite their battles in his NFU days, Whelan was one of a kind.

“He really was the farmers’ minister and whatever our battles, it was always clear where his interest lay,” Easter said.

“And he wasn’t afraid to face his critics and debate them.”

Whelan had no lack of critics during his often-tumultuous time as Canada’s 21st agriculture minister.

He oversaw creation of supply management marketing boards in the 1970s and had to deal with an uproar over rotting eggs under the care of the Canadian Egg Marketing Agency.

He defended dairy farmers and yet found himself doused with milk by protesting producers in 1976 when the federal government rejected Whelan’s proposal for a dairy subsidy to compensate for low prices.

He faced down Food Prices Review Board chair Beryl Plumptre and her criticisms of farm prices during the high inflation years of the 1970s.

He fought for a crown corporation, Canagrex, to market Canadian farm products abroad and was stymied by Liberal cabinet colleagues and then the successor Conservatives.

He also fought to turn what was then called Farm Credit Corporation into more of a true “farmers’ bank” but was also stymied by cabinet opposition.

Still, in retrospect he is hailed as one of modern Canada’s most acknowledged and popular agriculture ministers.