#39 – Eugene Whelan and his stupid stetson.

Writing about political oddballs recently, it is logical that the name of Eugene Whelan should surface. This space would be devoted to nothing else if once we start to recount fond memories of Gene. Member of Parliament, Minister of Agriculture and later Senator, Gene Whelan is actually a shy and charming gentleman. He is well into his 80’s today but this is not a eulogy.

While that stupid green stetson might have become some kind of a signature, it was actually a crutch of a sort for him to hide behind. While travelling around Ontario for the Liberal party in the 60’s and 70’s BS (before Stetson), I cannot say how often I bumped into Gene at Liberal party meetings. I most often found him in a corner, by himself, just watching and absorbing what was going on. I always made a point of stopping to say ‘hello’ and enjoying hearing his insights into the event. I will never forget our first meeting after Mr. Trudeau appointed him Minister of Agriculture. Gene was in the usual corner, by himself, doing his thing. I shook his hand warmly and congratulated him on Mr. Trudeau’s remarkably good sense.

“But,” I asked him in mock concern, “did Mr. Trudeau think to put one of those boot scraping thingees outside the cabinet room for you?”

“Nope,” was his sardonic reply, “I jus’ tracks it all in.”

I am not privy to the reasons Gene chose to run against John Turner for the party leadership in ’84 but I suspect it was because Gene was not as forgiving of some of the nasty things insiders had heard John say about Mr. Trudeau. Gene was very loyal and I was pleased that Mr. Trudeau insisted that he be made an ambassador after John refused to have him in his cabinet. That rotten Brian Mulroney cancelled the appointment as soon as he took over the Prime Minister’s office. The Italians almost had the rare treat of having Gene Whelan as Canadian ambassador.

I have a couple favourite stories about Gene. The first was when the party president asked me to cover a nomination meeting for the party in Hanover, Ontario. It was immediately after the convention had selected Pierre Trudeau as the new leader and nobody wanted to take time to go to this particular meeting. It was for a by-election that we knew would never take place because by then we knew Mr. Trudeau would shortly call a general election. I was surprised to find a couple thousand people in the Hanover arena when I arrived. And it was a very enthusiastic crowd. The second surprise of the evening was when Gene Whelan showed up and told me he was the guest speaker.

It certainly surprised the attendees but they were all enthusiastic Liberals and greeted Gene loudly and warmly when he was introduced. The introductory remarks in Gene’s speech were classic Whelan:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, fellow Liberals, I betcha you expected Pierre Trudeau to be here.” (A roar of agreement.) “Maybe you thought Mr. Trudeau would send John Turner.” (Another roar from the crowd.)

“But he sent me.” (A smattering of applause from the crowd.) “You wanna know why he sent me?” (A murmer of agreement from the crowd.) “Wull, he sent me, cus he wanted you to see that anybody can get elected to Parliament.”

Another favourite story about Gene was the time I was sitting in the lounge at the Ottawa airport reading Richard Gwyn’s new book at the time: The Northern Magus. The room was full of Conservative MPs and senators but I had noted Gene come in and go directly to the bar to get a Creme de Menthe that I am sure they kept there just for him. I continued to read, I was at a good part of the book. Next thing I know, someone is poking rudely at the book. It is Gene and that dreadful green Stetson and his worse liqueur. “Whatcha reading Peter?” he asks.

“Oh, it’s Richard Gwyn’s new book about Mr. Trudeau,” I told him.

“He’s a liar you know, that guy from the Toronto Star,” he responds.

Having read Richard’s articles for many years, I asked: “What does he lie about?”

“Bout me,” Gene almost whimpered. “He calls me a pig farmer. You know I wus always in mixed grains.”

Gwyn was probably not aware that in Southwestern Ontario referring to anyone who is not in the hog production business as a pig farmer is not considered flattering.

I had noticed that the room had become very quiet while this dialogue went on so I came up with a simple closer. “Gene,” I said, in something of a stage whisper, “that just proves that Richard really likes you. We certainly don’t want him telling the truth about you.”


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