A few weeks before his Feb. 19 death and already suffering from the aftermath of a stroke, former agriculture minister Eugene Whelan was still fretting about Canadian agricultural policy.
This time, it was a threat to his cherished supply management system from within his beloved Liberal party.
Whelan was watching the Liberal leadership race now underway and dismayed by a proposal from candidate Martha Hall Findlay to phase out the protectionist, production control and price-setting system.
“He was really concerned about Martha’s supply management position,” Liberal MP Wayne Easter said.
“Here he was, 88 years old and suffering from a stroke, and his head still was thinking about farmer interests. It was a sad conversation because it wasn’t his old voice on the phone but his old heart was there.”
Easter is a former president of the National Farmers Union, who often battled Whelan and later became a colleague when he joined the Liberal party and was elected an MP in 1993.
“One of the things about Gene was, as much as we fought when I was with the NFU, his door was always open to his critics,” said Easter.
“It is so different now.”
In the aftermath of Whelan’s death, friends and foes alike shared stories of his drive, fierce convictions about farmer rights and his sense of humour.
Charlie Gracey, a key player in the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association when Whelan was promoting supply management for the beef industry in the 1970s and 1980s, said he and the minister often tangled on the marketing board issue, but Gracey never doubted his core instinct.
“He was a tiger on supply management and we agreed to disagree because for our industry, he was wrong,” said Gracey.
“But he was a tireless supporter of agriculture, and while he didn’t always say it well, people remember what he said.”
As a former speechwriter for Whelan, Henry Heald remembers the minister as an agricultural advocate.
“Normally, I didn’t have direct contact with him, but occasionally I would get a call from him,” Heald said.
“Put more of this in or more of that, but it was never politics, it was more about the importance of agriculture or supply management.”
And then Whelan would take the speech prepared inside Agriculture Canada and use it as a small base to say what he really wanted to say.
“Only once in my time there did I see in a news story any quotes that I wrote,” said Heald.
“It must have been a time when the reporter wasn’t there and wrote from the text. Otherwise, Whelan spoke off the cuff.”
As one of the Pierre Trudeau government’s most colourful ministers, Whelan was often the target of attacks.
He relished telling and retelling one of those times.
In 1974, a Conservative opposition MP found evidence that Whelan had used government resources to fly to Miami in the dead of winter.
“I did fly to Miami,” the minister replied.
A media and opposition feeding frenzy broke out about abuse of taxpayer dollars.
When a reporter finally asked him about the trip, Whelan’s comment was that it was cold in Miami when he was there, -40.
As he recounted the story in his 1986 memoir, the reporter said it is never that cold in Florida.
“Whoever said anything about Florida? I’m talking about Miami, Man.”
He was there for a Manitoba corn awards banquet.
Whelan loved the story.