During his last term as Minister of Agriculture, Whelan became good friends with Aleksandr Yakovlev (external - login to view), then the USSR's Ambassador to Canada, as both men were ardent agriculturalists. The relationship became so close that Pierre Trudeau called him in to give assurance that he had not divulged any national secrets, as Whelan was a member of the Cabinet defence committee.
When Mikhail Gorbachev (external - login to view), then Soviet Minister of Agriculture, came to Canada in 1983, Yakovlev connected Gorbachev with Whelan, who arranged a three-week tour across Canada for both Soviet officials, accompanied fully by Whelan. In 2013, Jean Chrétien (external - login to view) recalled Gorbachev experiencing Canada up close, when the tour came to Windsor:
He came to Windsor and introduced him to the life of a Canadian,” Chretien said. “He was amazed at the food processing in Canada, to have all the food available so quickly. Later on, they were driving and he was marvelling to see two cars in front of every house.”
The group stopped in front of one blue-collar home.“Gorbachev said, ‘Do you know them?’ And Gene said, ‘I don’t know them, but they know me,’” Chretien recalled. “So they knocked on the door and went into the house. Gorbachev was very impressed by that.”[
At the end of that tour, the Whelans hosted a farewell reception for Gorbachev at their Amherstburg home on the evening of 19 May 1983, but Whelan himself was delayed in arriving. In what has since been called "the walk that changed the world", Yakovlev and Gorbachev took a walk in a nearby orchard, strolled among saplings and then past fields of corn, soy and wheat, had an earnest discussion, and resolved that the old ways in the USSR had to end.
According to Yakovlev's own words, this was where perestroika (external - login to view) was born, with 80% of its features covered in that brief time in Whelan's back yard.
In an interview years later, Yakovlev recalled:
At first we kind of sniffed around each other and our conversations didn't touch on serious issues. And then, verily, history plays tricks on one, we had a lot of time together as guests of then Liberal Minister of Agriculture Eugene Whelan in Canada (external - login to view) who, himself, was too late for the reception because he was stuck with some striking farmers somewhere.
So we took a long walk on that Minister's farm and, as it often happens, both of us suddenly were just kind of flooded and let go. I somehow, for some reason, threw caution to the wind and started telling him about what I considered to be utter stupidities in the area of foreign affairs, especially about those SS-20 (external - login to view) missiles that were being stationed in Europe (external - login to view) and a lot of other things. And he did the same thing.
We were completely frank. He frankly talked about the problems in the internal situation in Russia (external - login to view). He was saying that under these conditions, the conditions of dictatorship and absence of freedom, the country would simply perish. So it was at that time, during our three-hour conversation, almost as if our heads were knocked together, that we poured it all out and during that three-hour conversation we actually came to agreement on all our main points
Eugene Whelan - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (external - login to view)