Former agriculture minister Eugene Whelan dead at 88

The politican, remembered fondly for his trademark green Stetson cowboy hat, died Tuesday evening at his home in Amherstburg from complications following a stroke.

Politician remembered fondly for always sticking up for the Canadian farmer

Eugene Whelan, seen with Princess Anne, served as the Liberal MP for Essex-Windsor in southwestern Ontario from 1962 until 1984. (Andy Clark/Canadian Press)

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.

The politician, remembered fondly for his trademark green Stetson cowboy hat, died Tuesday evening at his home in Amherstburg, southwest of Windsor, from complications following a stroke.

Whelan had emergency surgery in February 1997 to replace part of his aorta and repair his heart valve, but Kirk Walstedt, a longtime friend and former colleague, told The Canadian Press his friend of about 60 years had "recovered quite nicely from that."

"His health was 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.

"I was deeply saddened to hear the news of Eugene Whelan's passing. He was an icon of Canadian politics, a real fighter who devoted his entire life to the service of community and country," Liberal Leader Bob Rae said in a media release.

The statement went on to say Whelan's "incredible contributions to agriculture and rural Canadians will long outlive this shining example of a man."

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."'

One of country's best-known politicians

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 Jean 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."

Expansive political career

Eugene Whelan was known for his green Stetson. (Canadian Press Photo)

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.

Essex County warden and Lakeshore mayor Tom Bain said Whelan always fought for the Canadian farmer.

"He was down to earth and honest," Bain said. "He did everything he could to represent the people of his area."

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."

Windsor West MP Brian Masse called Whelan a champion for consumer rights.

"To me, it’s a sad loss, but a great career for an individual that meant a lot for this area and stayed committed to this area," Masse said.

In 1996, Whelan was appointed by Prime Minister Jean Chretien, a former cabinet colleague, to the Senate.

In his own words

Some of Eugene Whelan's more memorable quotes:

  • "I don't think there is any politician who is as well known in the world as I am." (1984, when he declared his candidacy for Liberal leadership)
  • "Some of us once thought we would go to hell if we didn't eat fish on Fridays. But it was to help marketing. That's what it was for." (1984 speech in Halifax, after suggesting the Pope could declare two meatless days a week to help Atlantic fishery)
  • "A man should always wear a hat. In summer, the sun'll roast your brains if you don't wear a hat. That's one reason they have low IQs in Africa. They don't wear hats." (Comment during leadership campaign was criticized as a racial slur; Whelan said it was only a comment on the effects of the sun on a malnourished body)
  • "Whelan had a pretty good record when he was there. A very outspoken person, never got into any, how do you say it, trouble. Run a good department. Run a good ministry. Never overspent." (1993, self-appraisal when daughter Susan was nominated as Liberal candidate in her father's old riding)

With files from CBC