Whelan was the most popular agriculture minister Canada has had in several generations, famous for his green Stetson, outspoken opinions and folksy speeches.
He languished in the back benches of Parliament for 10 years after his first victory as a Liberal in Essex-Windsor in 1962. During the 1972 election campaign under Pierre Trudeau, he published his own agriculture policy platform that differed from the official Liberal Party platform and then-agriculture-minister H.A. (Bud) Olson, a relatively right-wing cattle rancher from Alberta.
Whelan was definitely left wing espousing policies that aligned closely with the New Democratic Party and the National Farmers Union.
Trudeau appointed him agriculture minister and gave him free rein, including patience to allow him to attack Beryl Plumtree when Trudeau appointed her head of his Food Prices Review Committee.
That cemented Whelan’s popularity among farmers as he threatened to “chop down the Plumtree” and insisted that “food in Canada is a bargain” and that the public could “either pay me (high prices for food) now, or pay me later (if low prices drove farmers into bankruptcy).”
That bloom faded at the end of the 1970s when interest rates spiked and many farmers, especially the young and most aggressive entrepreneurs, were bankrupted in 1980-82. Whelan and the federal government had to bail out the Farm Credit Corporation (now Farm Credit Canada) with about $2.5 billion to write off government loans to the crown corporation.
Whelan lost his cabinet post when Joe Clark’s conservatives took power in 1979, but he was back in 1980 and remained until he backed Jean Chretien for leader of the party in 1984, but John Turner was chosen. Turner tossed Whelan for Ralph Ferguson, an Ontario farmer.
Turner appointed Whelan ambassador to the World Food Programme in Rome, but Brian Mulroney, famous in a televised election debate for lecturing Turner that he had a choice to reject patronage appointments, swept into power and eliminated Whelan’s appointment. At the time, Whelan spurned offers of an appointment to the Senate; he felt it should be abolished.
He changed his mind when Chretien appointed him to the Senate in 1996.
Whelan is often wrongly credited for introducing national supply management. It came first to the dairy industry in the mid-1960s and it was Olson who introduced the legislation for national supply management for all other commodities in 1970 and got it passed before the 1972 election. Olson was no fan of supply management, but was convinced it was necessary to end a vicious inter-provincial “chicken and egg war”.
He was agriculture minister when the turkey and broiler chicken industries set up national marketing agencies.
(Whelan’s funeral will be held at St. John the Baptist Church, 225 Brock St., Amherstburg, Ontario on Feb. 23 at 11:00 am. Interment will follow at St. John the Baptist Cemetery.
Online condolences & cherished memories may be shared with the family at www.jhsutton-funeral.ca)