Saturday, 9 March 2013

Canadians to Be Proud Of

We've lost a couple in the last month. Some great tributes to Stomp'n Tom through the week. People who knew him much better than me talked about everything from his extraordinarily good song writing, to his genuine affection for Canada and Canadians. He really gave the voiceless a chance to be heard.

Another loss but not so well-known was Eugene Whelan. There's an amazing story about how his diplomacy had a big impact on creating perestroika in the former Soviet Union. That story below, but first a short column on why I'll miss Eugene Whelan.

Eugene Whelan was a lot more than a large man wearing a green Stetson.  The timing of his death in late February gives all of us one more chance to appreciate his stubbornly unique view of the role government should play in agriculture, just as that view is under severe attack. With European trade negotiators complaining that Canada has to “give” more to get a deal (that give will include giving up some import protection for the dairy industry), and the Conservative government determined that the road to riches is in export not domestic markets, the Whelan doctrine is slowly being dismantled.

        What people forget is that Eugene Whelan said no to farmers as often as he said yes. The video footage dragged out by the television media after his death always includes Quebec dairy farmers dumping milk on agriculture minister. He had refused a subsidy after world dairy markets had collapsed.  What he did give farmers (and consumers) was a regulated marketing system called supply management that limited production just to demand, and in return assured farmers a price based on the cost of production. It’s been twisted and turned by both farmers and economists over the years, and is in need of reform. Whelan insisted that the quota used to limit supply be free and belong to the government. Instead it’s become a recognized asset, often the most valuable thing on the farm, limiting new entrants and raising serious questions about whether farmers are paid too much. 

         Here’s the thing. While Europe and the United States were (are) in a bidding war to subsidize farmers and compete in export markets, Whelan realized Canada didn’t have the resources to play that game and did something completely different: carve out a Canadian domestic market to supply, and just as important make sure that everyone in the marketing chain is treated fairly. It’s not what processors and retailers are used to, but it’s created considerable stability for dairy, poultry and egg farmers, even in the Maritimes where farmers struggle with higher costs.  This isn’t the vision of the current government.

         The timing of Whelan’s death is also interesting with the “horsemeat” scandal in Europe. Many observers have said the cross-border trading of meat, and the fiercely competitive forces in the marketing chain are partly to blame. That just doesn’t happen in a regulated system where everyone knows what they can sell and at what price. It’s the not the “wild west” economics that financial commentators like, but it’s worked pretty well.

         We should also remember the confidence in Whelan given by Pierre Trudeau, not  a man who suffered fools lightly. The marketing boards created by Whelan were as controversial back then as they are now, including in the Liberal cabinet of the day.  Trudeau was an economic nationalist, and Whelan’s idea of supplying a stable Canadian market without the need for government subsidies made sense.

         And we can’t forget what Eugene Whelan told a group of PEI potato farmers in  a Vernon River church in 1981. He said PEI should focus on high valued seed potatoes, and leave the fresh and processed markets to others.   PVYN would probably have killed that vision too, but this was  a man with strong opinions that history will show was more right than wrong.

Man in the green Stetson brought verve and sass to public life during Trudeau era

Sandra Martin

Pierre Trudeau may have contemplated his political future during a walk in the snow, but it was his long-serving agriculture minister, Eugene Whelan, who helped initiate the fall of the Soviet Union with a stroll in the garden of his Amherstburg, Ont., farm. In the late 1970s, Cold War rivalries had gone back into a deep freeze: Ronald Reagan was promoting a Star Wars version of anti-ballistic missiles from the White House, a belligerent Margaret Thatcher was in Downing Street and the Soviets had marched into Afghanistan, precipitating a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics by a slew of Western countries.

Nearly a decade earlier, the aging leaders of what Mr. Reagan liked to call the “evil empire” had ostracized a peacenik, one-legged war veteran named Alexander Yakovlev by making him ambassador to Ottawa – the Soviet version of sending somebody to Coventry.
In the Canadian capital, Mr. Yakovlev made friends with an unlikely pair of politicos. The first was the ascetic Mr. Trudeau, who had been aggressively pursuing The Third Option in Europe and Asia, an alternative diplomatic policy to pandering to American hegemony. They chatted about novels by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, according to an article by Christopher Shulgan in Saturday Night magazine.
The ambassador’s second pal was Mr. Whelan, the folksy advocate for women and champion of farmers, who connected with him on all matters agricultural – back in the days when Canada shipped a lot of wheat to the then Soviet Union.
The friendship between the Soviet “exile” and the Canadian cabinet minister led to Mikhail Gorbachev, then a junior member of the politburo and in charge of managing the Soviet farm system. After a meeting in Moscow in 1981, the engaging Mr. Gorbachev accepted the gregarious Mr. Whelan’s invitation to tour Canadian farming operations in May, 1983. He was the most senior Soviet official to visit Canada in a dozen years.
That 10-day cross-country trip included shopping in grocery stores, tours of manufacturing plants, visits to Alberta ranches, a one-on-one with Mr. Trudeau – the first Western leader Mr. Gorbachev had ever met – and tentative, and then open, discussions en route with Mr. Yakovlev about the failures of communism and the need for restructuring Soviet society and government. The key conversation took place in Mr. Whelan’s backyard in Amherstburg while the future Soviet leader and his confidant waited for their host to arrive home from Ottawa.
The two Soviets ditched their bodyguards and strolled around the garden like characters in a Jane Austen novel, engrossed in private and deep discussions about what they had seen and how to apply it to their own country. Years later, Mr. Yakovlev estimated that 80 per cent of the ideas the two men discussed in Mr. Whelan’s back yard were incorporated into perestroika.
At the time, few in Canada realized the key diplomatic role Mr. Whelan had played, first in giving Mr. Gorbachev an inside look at ordinary Canadian life, and then by providing the opportunity for a private meeting with Mr. Yakovlev, the man who would become known as the godfather of Glasnost.
Facilitating that meeting of minds is as integral a part of Mr. Whelan’s political legacy as his shamrock green Stetson, his support for farmers and supply-management policies and his advocacy for feeding the poor of the world.
Mr. Whelan was a die-hard Liberal. “The Conservatives have the right wing, The NDP have the left wing. The Liberals have two wings and that’s why we can fly,” he loved to boast. First elected to the House of Commons in 1962, he served under two prime ministers, Lester Pearson and Mr. Trudeau, and is one of the remaining bridges between the young men, including John Turner, Herb Gray, Donald Macdonald and Jean Chr├ętien, who went to Ottawa in the early 1960s, and Justin Trudeau, front-runner in the current Liberal leadership contest.


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