Canada lost two federal agriculture ministers in 2013 and honoured a third

The past year saw the passing of two former agriculture ministers who represented a unique era in Canadian agricultural policy and the elevation of another to the country’s highest political honour.

But let’s start with the departed.

Eugene Whelan and John Wise represented different political parties but in many ways were peas in a pod. They were friendly rivals from the same area of southwestern Ontario.

Both were Ontario producers with a deep affection for “their” farmers and fierce support for supply management in the face of sometimes-hostile reaction within their own governments.

Whelan was agriculture minister for more than 10 years under Pierre Trudeau from 1972-1979 and 1980-84. He didn’t invent the policy that created supply management, but he oversaw the development of chicken and egg supply management agencies.

Never one to hide his light under a bushel basket, Whelan claimed that he played a key role in ending communism in the Soviet Union by hosting then-Soviet agriculture minister Mikhail Gorbachev on a tour of Ontario farms in 1983.

In many ways, with his unique Whelanese way of speaking, he was one of Trudeau’s few populist ministers. He was unafraid to face farmer critics, got doused with milk on Parliament Hill during a dairy farmer protest and faced critics head-on.

In his retirement after almost three decades in Parliament, he remained an active, persistent critic of subsequent ministers and governments, often beginning telephone calls with, “when I was your agriculture minister …”

The punch line obviously was that “things were better.”

Whelan died in February.

A month before, his old friend Wise (1979-80, 1984-88) also died.

He was an Elgin County dairy farmer, a gentleman not comfortable with the more base aspects of partisan politics, and like Whelan, dedicated to preserving supply management.

Wise spoke forcefully in favour of the system, defended it against skeptics like finance minister Michael Wilson and in the end bowed out of politics in 1988 after 16 years as an MP.

The suspicion was that he feared the impact of the 1988 Canada-U.S. free trade deal on supply management. He would never confirm nor deny.

Wise died in January.

Then the year ended on a happier note.

Former Alberta Progressive Conservative MP Don Mazankowski, still very much with us 20 years after he retired from politics, was elevated to the highest political honour Canada can offer: Companion of the Order of Canada.

Mazankowski , a Vegreville farmer and automobile and farm machinery dealer, was agriculture minister for less than three years (1988-91) but as finance minister, transport minister and deputy prime minister during a 25-year House of Commons career, this northeastern Alberta MP always had agriculture in the back of his mind.

And he was tough.

He read the riot act to provinces that were paying less than their share of agricultural costs, he cancelled the annual Agricultural Outlook Conference in 1989 that had become a forum for government information but also criticism and took on all comers when it came to criticism.

In late 2013, he was elevated to Companion of the Order of Canada, having first joined the elite group under Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien in 2000.

Mazankowski is properly honoured.

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