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The Back Page: April 2013

A Tough Act to Follow


March 15, 2013
By Roy Maxwell

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When Canadian Poultry asked me to pinch-hit for Jim Knisley, while he enjoys a well-deserved break, I welcomed the opportunity. However, I wasn’t sure what to write about until Feb. 19, when Senator Eugene F. Whelan passed away just six weeks after his longtime friend, The Honourable John Wise.

Eugene Whelan was Minister of Agriculture throughout the Trudeau years. John Wise was minister under Prime Ministers Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, and he was the Conservative agriculture critic when not serving as minister.

While working for CBC in Toronto, I interviewed Eugene many times. Frankly, it was not always as much fun as it might sound. For one thing, he liked to talk a lot and, when he got rolling, he wasn’t easy to stop. If the interview was live, serious broadcasting skills were required. If it was recorded, serious editing skills were needed. He was always a good interview, just not an easy one.

Second, it wasn’t always easy convincing either minister to go on the program in the first place because they knew they would face fair but tough questions. There was one occasion when we wanted both of them on at the same time, but their respective offices declined. That’s when we used an old media trick – we told Wise’s office that Mr. Whelan was joining us and told Whelan’s office we would be speaking with Mr. Wise. Of course, we didn’t have either lined up, but in less than an hour, they were both on air.

There were other memorable interviews, including one with Eugene that was to be a “Feature Interview” on CBC’s radio program, Sunday Morning. The goal was to let listeners learn more about the man in the green Stetson without getting into the complex subject of marketing boards. So, I spoke to him instead about world hunger. It was then that Eugene predicted a disastrous famine in Ethiopia and warned that an army of doctors and nurses and others would be needed. He was right and he poured his heart out stating his case. Eugene was passionate about tackling the problems of world hunger and poverty. During my 16 years at the Chicken Farmers of Ontario (CFO), I began to slowly get to know Whelan on a more personal level and “Mr. Whelan” gradually became “Gene.” He would call me at the office just to chat and catch-up, and our paths continued to cross throughout the years. CBC listeners learned a lot about the man from that interview.

I once again found myself preparing for another Whelan and Wise interview, when they both agreed to be co-chairs of FarmGate5, in support of Ontario’s supply-managed poultry and dairy industries. I agreed to do the interview if there would only be one microphone, so I could stop “Gene” as I now knew him, from taking control. I say that respectfully, but it is the absolute truth. He lunged for the one-and-only microphone several times during the session and I had great fun kidding him about his love affair with microphones. In the end, it was an entertaining and informative mix of fun, political history and serious talk about supply management. Gene and John were great – the audience loved it and so did I.

The Dairy Farmers of Ontario then asked if we would be willing to give a repeat performance at its Annual Fall Policy Conference in Alliston. Gene and I were enthusiastic and John, being a fifth generation dairy farmer, loved the idea – so off we went. It was a great success and both of those guys were treated like rock stars.

It was the last time I saw either one of them.

Both Eugene Whelan and John Wise were always a tough act to follow because whenever they spoke, it wasn’t an act.

At a CFO annual meeting many years ago, Gene clenched his fist and shook it at the audience, saying, “It is easier to be a wrecker than a builder. Don’t let them tear down what you have built.”

He was talking about supply management. He was talking about you.


Roy Maxwell is a communications professional with extensive experience in agriculture, broadcast journalism, media relations, corporate communications, emergency preparedness and crisis communications.

His media career was launched in Kitchener at CKCO TV (a CTV affiliate) in 1976, where Roy produced and hosted “Agri-News”– a live, daily television show. He also provided daily farm reports on CKCO’s AM and FM radio stations.
Roy then went to Toronto in 1977 to join the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as an Agriculture and Resources Commentator on “Radio Noon.” He also read newscasts and worked on special assignments in the news and current affairs departments.

Roy left broadcasting in 1989 to enter the government-regulated, not-for-profit sector, where he managed all facets of communications for Chicken Farmers of Ontario, until 2005.  He then established Roy Maxwell Communications in Burlington, Ont. to provide consulting services for numerous clients, including several in the poultry industry.


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