Gene Whelan: Foursquare for Farmers
The Maclean’s Food Guide
The farmer in the dell Has lots of grub to sell. But if you aren’t nice, And pay his price, Why, you can go to hell
Fred Risk, a retired stationary engineer but active politician, leaned over the kitchen table and
wagged an angry finger at Gene Whelan. “We’re in trouble on this cost of living thing,” he said, “and you’d better go back and tell Doctor Trudeau that if he doesn’t get off his ass and do something, we’re going to get whipped.” He sank back in his chair, but his finger remained outthrust, pointing past the scattered remains of one of Liz Whelan’s magnificent Sunday breakfasts, fixing the Minister of Agriculture in his chair, impaling him there. Whelan looked pained. He sighed, he heaved his hands heavenward, he rolled his eyes. “Well, Jesus, Fred,” he said, “it’s not that simple.” Fred snorted. A longtime Liberal party worker, a longtime friend, he had come to the Whelan farm, just outside Amherstburg, Ontario, bearing a warning. He had been traveling, not only in the riding but up into northern Ontario, and everywhere he went the message was the same: people resent high food costs, they want something done, and if the Liberal government won’t do it, then, dammit, they’ll put in a Conservative government. And what does the Minister of Agriculture say? He says it’s not that simple. That’s politician’s talk; Gene Whelan was starting to sound like a politician. Disdain was etched on Fred Risk’s face; he could
hardly believe what he was hearing.
Whelan began to explain, in that low, slow voice. He hunched over the table, leaning on his elbows, with his large farmer’s hands demolishing a breakfast roll. No one would ever call him pretty; with 237 pounds draped over a five-foot, 11-inch frame, he has the bodily contour of a sack of barley, topped by a large head framed in generous jowls. The eyes are small, blue and rather close set, nose is long and strong, the mouth wide, and there is a scar — a skate cut from hockey days — on the right cheek. Despite looking like a genial bouncer, however, he is an attractive man, in large part because of his refreshing directness, quick intelligence and wry humor. once told a farm meeting, “I notice there are a lot of free enterprisers in agriculture when things are going good, but lot of socialists around when things going bad.”
There is also, behind a surface sureness, a surprising streak of humility. can hardly get used to the idea of being a cabinet minister,” he growls, and sounds like a kid who has unexpectedly made the first team. When he was being sworn into office in November, 1972, hesitated so long over signing the register that Regional and Economic Expansion Minister Don Jamieson called out, “It’s W-H-E-L-A-N.” But it wasn’t spelling that
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WHELAN from page 29
slowed him; it was the realization that he was joining the company of Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and others as one of Her Majesty's advisers.
As they would say back in Essex County, there is no “side'' to Gene Whelan. On a flying trip to St. Catharines, he took obvious delight in having a Beechcraft Queenair laid on for his use by the Ministry of Transport, but he worried about inconveniencing the pilots, did his damnedest to get us to the airport at the appointed time, and when we were delayed apologized twice to the pilots for holding up the return trip. “Some ministers,” noted one of the pilots, “keep you sitting around for five hours after a scheduled takeofl'. then cancel the flight and leave you hanging.”
Whelan’s obvious empathy for others, his willingness to listen and learn, and his direct approach are his strongest assets. In many ways, he is a very ordinary guy. He lives in a modest bungalow, much of which he built himself, until recently drove a 1969 Dodge, watches little TV. gets ordered around bv his three lively daughters, and worries about money. Like most politicians, his campaigns left him heavily in debt, and his awesome new $43,000 salary is being used to catch up the backlog. During the week, he lives alone in a modest apartment in Ottawa, and on weekends he comes home to catch hell from friends, neighbors and advisers — friends like Fred Risk, who are not going to be put off by what Whelan calls “biomass material,” a farmyard product.
So he decided to level with Fred Risk, and in about five minutes destroyed his breakfast roll and Fred’s hopes. Food prices are not as high as people think, said Whelan, not compared either to other countries or to other costs in Canada. And if they are edging up. it isn’t the farmer who is to blame. Maybe if housewives took a little care when they shopped, they could save some money, and maybe if they weren't so fond of convenience foods and fancy packages, they could save some more. But in anv event, he. Gene Whelan, was not going to support any measures that would cut prices to farmers. Farmers don’t make enough as it is; they are just beginning to catch up after decades of subsidizing consumers through cheap food. In fact, if he had his way. farmers would be getting a lot more money, and they would have stable incomes, just like plumbers or teachers or auto workers, and if that meant that the price of food went up some more, well, so be it.
It was a bad day for Fred Risk; when Whelan stopped talking like a politician, the result w'as worse than when he stuck
J he last time we had a federal minister of agriculture who stood foursquare for farmers was when Alvin Hamilton had the portfolio during the Diefenbaker years. By almost every measure, Hamilton was a spectacular success; Whelan may be another.
Not that he is much like Hamilton. Hamilton is a westerner, a schoolteacher, a man of wide reach and long vision. Flis specialty w'as — and, as MP for Qu’Appelle-Moose Mountain, it remains — the capacity to swarm over a subject, to summarize, to draw' grand conclusions. Whelan is an easterner, a
vegetable farmer, a man without much formal education. He is, as Hamilton says, “exactly what you see, a typical earthy farmer with an inner cunning, but not a bad guy.”
Just the same, there are two characteristics that Hamilton and Whelan share, a coincidence with some impact for every Canadian. In the first place, Whelan, like Hamilton, is instinctively, firmly and forever on the side of the farmer. Otto Lang, w'ho, as the minister responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board, is the other cabinet member charged with agricultural policy, is a law professor, a
speechifier, a technocrat. “He talks to farmers,” says Whelan, “as if he was the teacher and they were backward pupils.” Whelan talks to them as if they were buddies. Many agricultural spokesmen dislike his policies, some distrust his ability, none doubt his dedication or sincerity.
Another shared trait is the predisposition both Hamilton and Whelan have for encouraging growth, rather than restricting supplies, as a way to boost farm incomes, and give them some form of stabilization. Agricultural economics is complex, full of such won-
drous phrases as “supply management” and “optimum yield,” but really there are only two main schools of thought, the Growers and the Buriers. For some time now, the Buriers have had control of the farming policy of most western nations, and they have limited plantings, taken arable land out of production, ploughed under crops w hen they got too good, paid farmers not to do their job. In Canada, in 1970, the government instituted Operation LIFT — Lower Inventory For Tomorrow — which paid farmers to reduce wheat plantings, and resulted in a crop 150 million bushels
smaller than it might have been. Hamilton charged that such a program was “immoral,” and Whelan, then a backbencher, wrote letters to every member of the federal cabinet, protesting. In 1972, during a three-w'eek period in June, Canadian poultrymen were paid 90 cents a bird to slaughter 1.4 million laying hens, because egg prices were too low. Soon, eggs were selling for a dollar a dozen.
Whelan is not a Burier. “I can’t accept that it is right to tell a farmer to destroy a crop, or not to grow as much as he can. It’s been our job for thousands of years to grow things, and now, in a starving world, the experts tell us to lay off. I can’t accept that.”
As Whelan sees it, the farmer is caught in a cleft; if the crop is good, prices tumble, and he barely scrapes by; if the crop is terrible, prices are high, but he has little or nothing to sell.
Instead of meagre crops to support prices, he wants better marketing, through national marketing boards; instead of alternating years of glut and scarcity, he wants modern, governmentaided storage facilities, so that crops can be released as required; instead of driving farmers off the land (the 1969 federal task force on agricultural policy recommended displacing two out of every three Canadian farmers), he wants decent, stable prices to keep them on the land. Whelan would like to have the Canadian Wheat Board under his portfolio (it is now an adjunct to the Justice Department); he would like to limit foreign food imports when they threaten to put Canadian farmers out of business, and, finally, he would like to see Canadian farmers licensed, like mechanics, lawyers. doctors, pilots, etc. “Why not? Why should a guy who doesn’t know anything about the business be allowed to come in and operate as inefficiently as hell and wreck things for others. I’d tell the doctor who wants to be a gentleman farmer to get lost.”
None of his suggestions will endear Whelan to consumers — or, indeed, to his own government. He doesn’t mind; the Canadian farmers’ new friend has always been in trouble.
Eugene Francis Whelan was born on July 11, 1924, at Amherstburg, just outside Windsor, Ont., the fifth of nine children of Charles Whelan, a dairy farmer. In 1931, when Gene was almost seven, his father died of cancer. He knew he was going to die, so he sold his herd, and used the notes he received for it as collateral for a bank loan to provide for his family. The Depression struck, the farmers who owed him for the cattle couldn’t pay, and the bank came back on the Whelans. The family was living on Mother’s Allowance (not the federal family allowance, which didn’t exist then, but the provincial allowance avail-
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able to needy widows and deserted mothers), which came to a princely five dollars a month for each child under 16, and all nine were under 16. so their income was $45 a month. Once a month, one or two of the Whelan kids trooped down to the bank with five dollars to cover the interest on their debt.
The Whelans were poor but cheerful; Gene had a happy homelife, roughhoused with his brothers, played hockey and football (despite a brace he wore to correct a hernia) and got into trouble at school. “My marks were no hell, and 1 was lippy. In one class, the teacher made me sit at the front, so he could hit me with a ruler without having to get up.”
As each child reached 16. the Mother’s Allowance was cut off, so they went to work. Gene worked as a machine operator and millwright. He was quick and intelligent, and the company he worked for wanted him to return to school to study engineering. “I said. ‘You’re crazy. I’m going to be a farmer.’ ” When the family debt was cleared, and he had saved enough money, he bought a tractor, and then harvesting equipment to do custom work. He went into the business of harvesting other people’s crops for a fee, a business that didn’t bring in much money, and led to partial deafness, from standing too close to an ear-blasting sweet corn picker.
Whelan got his own farm by a fluke. “I was in the beerhall, having a beer, and this Serbian fellow who had come down from the north or somewhere suddenly said. ‘Why don’t you buy my farm?’ I said, ‘I don’t have no money,’ and he said. ‘Who said anything about money?’ So I bought it, and didn’t pay a nickel on it for a year.” Whelan never found out what restlessness pushed the Serbian into such generosity that he would let go 120 acres of good, though
poorly worked land for nothing down. Whelan knew a bargain when he. saw one, and by dint of hard work and skillful management not only turned the farm into a paying proposition, but expanded it to an eventual 220 acres of beans, soybeans, corn and peas. Since 1968 the farm has been operated by his brother Tom.
Like his father, who had been warden of the county, Whelan combined farming with politics. His Dad was a Conservative, his mother leaned to the Liberals, but Gene couldn’t forgive the Tories for the Depression, so he joined the Liberals. (His mother, Mrs. Frances Whelan, now 81, visited Regina in the fall of 1972, where one son, Ed, is an NDP MLA in the Saskatchewan legislature; then she flew to Ottawa for the opening of parliament. She reported to Brian Ducharme, Whelan’s special assistant, “These fellows all sound pretty much alike.”)
Whelan was elected to the Anderdon Township Local SS No. 3 and 4 Board when he was only 21, “on the sound ground,” he explains facetiously, “that I wasn’t married, didn’t have any kids, and didn't know nothing about schools.” He became a township councillor, and reeve, and then overreached himself in 1959, when he ran provincially, and lost to a Conservative. The setback did not deter him; he had built a strong base in the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, the Ontario Winter Wheat Producers Marketing Board and the co-op movement. In January, 1962, he was elected to his father’s old post, warden of Essex County. As a municipal politician, he was, says one who knew him then, “tough, shrewd, and a bit of an opportunist. He was terrific at getting money out of senior governments for roads and bridges — which the farmers needed.
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He knew the Municipal Act better than most big-city mayors, and he wasn’t afraid to make enemies.”
Later that same year, he ran federally, defeated Dick Thrasher, former national organizer for the Conservatives, and went into parliament. His seat has never been seriously threatened since, in part because he gained a quick reputation as a hardworking MP who stuck by his constituents and his principles.
Because he tended to be fractious, Whelan was passed over for a cabinet post, despite his ability and leadership in the Liberal caucus. “I wanted to be minister of agriculture, but I wouldn’t beg for it, so I didn’t get it.” Just the same, everybody in Ottawa knew he wanted the job. In 1965, at the Liberal Christmas Party, Whelan, standing in line to enter the Confederation Room, complained aloud that “My wife doesn’t understand Pearson’s cabinet shuffle. She doesn’t understand why he’s got some of those guys where he’s got them.” Suddenly he heard Pearson’s familiar voice over his shoulder. “And where does she want you. Gene?” Whelan turned and grinned. “Home,” he said, and pushed on.
His experience as a backbencher confirmed his antipathy to experts, big shots and bureaucrats. According to Douglas Fisher, then an NDP MP, “When Gene first arrived in this town, he was pretty overwhelmed by some of these people, with their big titles and long degrees and so forth. He didn’t have much education, and he was inclined to look up to them. But then when he saw some of the foul-ups that occur, and some of the things that are done, he soon found out that he was just as smart, even if he didn’t talk as well. It had a profound effect on him; he began to push for things.”
Some of the pushing was done against his own government. In November, 1971, when an income tax change was proposed which would have hurt credit unions and co-ops, Whelan charged head on. After railing against the change in vain during caucus meetings, he rose in the House to charge that the new law had been drawn by experts who-knew nothing about farming, co-ops, credit unions or taxation, and threatened to quit: “It is more difficult to get rid of a civil servant than a backbencher, because top civil servants are here forever and backbenchers come and go like the wind. If we pass this legislation in its present form, when this backbencher goes, he will go in the damnedest storm you ever saw.” He won, and the change was scrapped, but he was even further away from the good graces of the government.
In fact, as he is the first to acknowledge, his elevation to the cabinet was almost an accident (he commended the Prime Minister for his “courage” in tak-
ing him on). Every other Liberal farm spokesman of stature was defeated in 1972, and Whelan got the portfolio by elimination.
Lie began at once to press for a better deal for “my farmers,” regardless of politeness, politics or grammar. First, he attacked “spoiled” consumers for their gripes about food costs. “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 a bag and, my God, everybody’s crying.”
Then he attacked the tribe of economists, bureaucrats and other experts on whom, in the long run, he is heavily dependent. “All my advisers told me the prices were going to level off in June, but they didn’t.”
Then he attacked the press, food processors and supermarkets for the food rip-off: “If anybody ever created an environment for rip-offs by unscrupulous meat packers, millers or bread manufacturers, whatever, they certainly have created the environment for them because everybody has it in their mind now that food must go up, and you and I both know that when bacon jumps 25 cents a pound there’s nothing but a goddam rip-off in that thine;. That’s all it amounts to.”
Perhaps it takes more than disdain for experts, faith in farmers and disregard for the rules of English to make an outstanding minister of agriculture, but I have a hunch Whelan will make it anyway, given the chance. He has the essential equipment — intelligence, humor, toughness and an instinct for politics.
He is going to need all these assets, of course, because he faces severe problems, including the hostility of many western farm spokesmen. “His government is out to destroy the Wheat Board,” claims Manitoba’s Agriculture Minister, Sam Uskiw. “and Whelan hasn’t raised a finger to stop it.”
Which brings up another problem. Whelan is not a moving force in the Trudeau cabinet. As one of the senior officials in his department puts it, “Trudeau is surrounded by technocrats, memo-writers and debaters; Whelan doesn’t work well in that mix. He has a tough time getting his arguments across.” I put that quote to Whelan, and he nodded.
Finally, Whelan is not popular with consumers. After all, he is telling us to stop whining about food costs, or at least to direct our whines away from the farmer, and warning us that, if he has his way, food prices will go up, not down.
He makes some credible points. Canadian farmers get only about $2.80 out of every eight dollars spent on Canadian-produced food, and have not had the lion’s share of price increases. Between 1961 and 1972, consumer food ex-
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penditures increased by $4.2 billion, but net farm income went up only $738 million — less than one quarter of the jump. In 1971, the latest year for which income tax returns have been analyzed, the average farmer who made enough to pay taxes received an annual income (including income in kind) of $5,989, compared to $39,555 for doctors, $27,862 for lawyers and $7,130 for all business employees.
What’s more, while Canadians pay only about \S% of their disposable income for food (lower than most nations). until last year wages rose faster than food prices and we are still in a better position than we were 20 years ago. In 1953, a factory worker earning the average hourly wage of $1.36 took 35 minutes to earn the price of a pound of round steak. By 1973, at a rate of $3.83 an hour, he earned the steak in 31 minutes.
If there are rip-offs, they take place past the farm gate. The man who grows
your turkey gets less than 5% of its retail cost; farmers who grow vegetables under contract have, according to a National Farmers Union study, been faced with static prices for more than a decade (the average price for beans in 1972 was actually lower than the five-year average price in 1960-64), and yet another study, by the Manitoba Department of Agriculture, showed that whoever cleaned up on the pork price hike it wasn’t the farmer. Between December, 1972, and August. 1973, the producer price for dressed pork increased by 24 cents a pound, while, in supermarkets, pork shoulder went from 65 cents to $1.10, a hike of 45 cents, boneless loin went up 52 cents, boneless smoked ham by 86 cents, top grade bacon 73 cents.
Against this background. Whelan argues that if there is fat to be trimmed out of food prices it must come from the middleman, not the farmer. If farmers don’t get better prices, he argues, “they will get out of business. Every day, 24
farmers across Canada quit the land. Why should they go on working for next to nothing?”
Last fall, during the Food and Agriculture Organization meeting in Rome. Whelan was suddenly called home for an important cabinet meeting. He was immediately dubbed “Cincinnatus.” and that was a double-edged crack, since Cincinnatus was a Roman senator (Whelan stands foursquare for the abolition of the Senate) and a dictator who was called back from the farm on two occasions to put down, first the barbarians. and then the Roman plebians. But Whelan reveled in the title; nothing would please him more than to have unchecked power for a few months to reorder food production and marketing systems in Canada. Given that power, there is no question that he would make sweeping changes, which would bring us more food but at higher prices.
And Fred Risk would be more upset than ever,