The politician, remembered fondly for his trademark green Stetson cowboy hat, died Tuesday evening at his home in Amherstburg from complications following a stroke.
He was 88.
Close family friend Kirk Walstedt, who worked with Whelan when he was minister of agriculture, said the flamboyant politician will be greatly missed.
“He was just a great man and a great Canadian,” Walstedt said.
“He was loved by everyone. He did so much for the country and he was Canada’s best minister of agriculture.”
Essex County warden and Lakeshore mayor Tom Bain said Whelan always fought for the Canadian farmer.
“He was down to earth and honest,” Bain said. “He did everything he could to represent the people of his area.”
Deep roots with southwestern Ontario
Whelan had deep ties to Amherstburg.
He served on the local separate school board, township council and road committee before entering federal politics. He said he became a politician because he wanted farmers to have more say.
After the 1972 election, he was appointed agriculture minister, a post he held for 12 years except for a nine month period when Joe Clark and his Conservatives swept into power in 1979 to 1980. He was agriculture minister during former prime minister Pierre Trudeau's two final terms.
Windsor West MP Brian Masse called Whelan a champion for consumer rights.
“To me, it’s a sad loss, but a great career for an individual that meant a lot for this area and stayed committed to this area,” Masse said.
Whelan ran unsuccessfully for the Liberal leadership in June 1984, losing to John Turner.
After retiring from the Commons in July 1984, he was appointed ambassador to Rome by Turner, but the Conservatives cancelled the appointment when they came to power later that year.
Whelan was appointed to the Senate by former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in August 1996 and served until he reached the chamber's mandatory retirement age of 75 in 1999.