OTTAWA - Jim Flaherty, the former finance minister who took the country from surplus to huge, recession-spawned deficits and back to within an eyelash of a surplus, died suddenly Thursday.
His death left MPs on all sides of the political spectrum shocked and tearful.
The jocular, wise-cracking Flaherty, who until mid-March had been the Harper government's only finance minister, was 64.
He earned an international reputation as a cautious, conservative steward of the public purse who was respected as the man who steered Canada safely through the rapids of the international recession.
The United States' new ambassador to Canada said Flaherty was well-liked on both sides of the border.
"His leadership and integrity earned him the respect and admiration of Canadians and Americans," Bruce Heyman said in a statement.
"His public service, to Ontario and to all of Canada, made an enormous positive difference in the lives of people. His spirit, undaunted good cheer, and great love of life are an example to all of us."
Flaherty took the Finance portfolio when Prime Minister Stephen Harper formed his first government and held it through four elections, cabinet changes, world economic shocks and a bout with a rare skin disease that put him on steroids.
The condition, however, was not thought to be life-threatening and the cause of death was not immediately announced.
His death came as a shock. A shaken Harper called him a colleague and partner. Some of his fellow Tory MPs wept at the news. Political foes offered praise.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who was prepared to savage Conservatives for perceived flaws in budget after budget, squeezed his eyes against tears as he recalled Flaherty's "pleasant demeanour and strength of character."
Flaherty was a stocky leprechaun with a twinkling eye in a wide Irish face. He had a seemingly bottomless wardrobe of green neck ties, a crooked grin and a quirky sense of humour that took the edge off his parliamentary barbs.
After his maiden speech in the House of Commons, he was replying to questions when the Speaker urged him to keep his answers short.
"I assure you, Mr. Speaker, that I am always short, but I will also try to be brief," he replied to chuckles from all around.
James Michael Flaherty, Jim to all, was born in Lachine, Que., on Dec. 30, 1949.
After attending Bishop Whelan High School and Loyola High School in Montreal he earned a BA at Princeton University and a law degree from York University's Osgoode Hall Law School.
He was a founding partner of the law firm Flaherty Dow Elliott before entering politics in 1990, when he ran and lost provincially in the riding of Durham Centre.
He ran again in 1995, and won a seat in the legislature.
The new member for Whitby-Ajax entered Mike Harris's Tory cabinet in 1997 as labour minister. He also served as finance minister, attorney general, enterprise minister and deputy premier under Harris and his successor, Ernie Eves.
Flaherty twice sought the Ontario Conservative leadership unsuccessfully.
He sought to succeed Harris in 2002, but lost to Eves, his predecessor as finance minister.
In his leadership campaign, Flaherty proposed a tax credit for parents to send their children to private schools and said he would privatize the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.
He made some barbed comments about Eves during the leadership campaign and found himself with the low-key job of minister of enterprise in the next cabinet.
After the Conservatives lost the 2003 provincial election, Eves said he would step down the next year. Flaherty ran again for leader, but lost to John Tory.
In 2006, Flaherty jumped to federal politics. He won in Whitby-Oshawa as the Tories former their first minority government.
As Finance minister, Flaherty never saw a tax that couldn't be cut down a bit. In 2006 he chopped a percentage point to drop the GST to six per cent. He shaved off another percentage point in 2008.
In 2006, he also announced changes to the tax rules governing income trusts which sparked anger and prompted special hearings by the Commons finance committee.
Flaherty's budgets kept coming up with ways for people to reduce their taxes.
In 2007, he introduced the Registered Disability Savings Plan to help Canadians with disabilities and their families save. One of Flaherty's triplet sons has a mental disability and the minister wept openly in announcing the plan.
The next year he brought in the Tax-Free Savings Account, which allows people to earn tax-free investment income.
There were also targeted tax cuts to help everyone from truckers to people buying sports equipment. He raised the basic personal deduction to get more low-income people off the tax rolls entirely, cut a point from the lowest personal tax rate and raised the upper limits of the two lowest tax brackets.
In his 2013 budget, he boasted that the average family of four was saving $3,220 in taxes compared with their bill in 2006.
While he was a strong fiscal conservative, Flaherty wasn't afraid to plunge into deficit to stave off the effects of the 2009 recessions.
He took the balanced budgets of the Liberal years deep into the red as he pumped money to support infrastructure projects and keep the economy from stalling.
He pledged, however, to get the books in balance in time for the federal election expected in 2015. He was within an eyelash of doing that with his last budget in February.
He is survived by his wife, Christine Elliott, herself a lawyer and a politician. When he gave up his provincial seat to run federally, she won it, leaving them representing roughly the same region in Ottawa and Toronto..
The couple had triplet sons, Quinn, Galen and John.
B.C. POLITICIANS MOURN THE DEATH OF FORMER FEDERAL FINANCE MINISTER JIM FLAHERTY
VANCOUVER - Sorrow is being expressed across British Columbia over the sudden death of Canada's former finance minister Jim Flaherty, who has died at the age of 64.
Flaherty's family revealed the veteran Conservative politician, who resigned from politics just last month, died peacefully at his downtown Ottawa condo.
Premier Christy Clark says Flaherty had the difficult job of returning Canada to a balanced budget and he'll be remembered as a great Canadian and finance minister.
NDP leader Adrian Dix noted Flaherty also served with distinction in Ontario provincial politics.
Dan Brooks, a candidate for leadership of the BC Conservatives, says Flaherty should be remembered as a devoted family man who was married to his wife for a quarter-century and had three boys.
B.C. Conservative MP Cathy McLeod says Flaherty was respected on both sides of the House, and while there will be an opportunity to reflect on his many contributions in the coming days it's best now to express grief and support for his family.
SOME QUOTES ABOUT THE DEATH OF FORMER FINANCE MINISTER JIM FLAHERTY
OTTAWA - Former finance minister Jim Flaherty died Thursday. Here is a sampling of the reaction to his death:
"Today is a very sad day for me, for our government and for all of our country. ... Jim will be sorely missed."
— Prime Minister Stephen Harper
"We appreciate that he was so well supported in his public life by Canadians from coast to coast to coast and by his international colleagues."
— Statement on behalf of Christine Elliott and her triplet sons, John, Galen and Quinn
"As minister of finance, Mr. Flaherty served his country with dedication and conviction, even as he faced mounting health challenges. As both a man and a politician, I will remember him for his pleasant demeanour and strength of character."
— NDP Leader Tom Mulcair
"Jim was a dedicated parliamentarian with a strong social conscience and fundamentally committed to the ideal of public service. He was a proud Canadian and showed continued devotion and commitment to his country over many years. This is a loss to the entire family in the House of Commons."
— Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau
"He was a man of character, that's a terrible loss for Canada. .... People will remember him as a great finance minister and a great Canadian."
— British Columbia Premier Christy Clark
"Canada has a lost an extraordinary public servant — a man who was respected across our country and around the world. ... On behalf of Canada's business leaders, I want to express our sincere condolences to his family. We are grateful for Jim Flaherty's many contributions to Canada and deeply saddened by his untimely passing."
— John Manley, president and CEO of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives
"He was a rare partisan, able to extend a mischievous twinkle to a rejoinder in Question Period. He was a dedicated public servant and a genuinely kind man."
— Federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and MP Bruce Hyer
"Devastated to hear news of my friend Jim Flaherty passing. My prayers go out to Christine Elliot & family. The Ford family is heart broken."
— Tweet from Toronto Mayor Rob Ford
"I did have a relationship with Jim. It is very unfortunate that he passed. He provided a great public service. I only with he had more time with his family since his retirement so very recently."
— Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger
BUSINESS LEADERS DESCRIBE FLAHERTY'S ECONOMIC LEADERSHIP AS GLOBAL IN SCOPE
TORONTO - Former federal finance minister Jim Flaherty was remembered by the business community on Thursday for his steady hand and determined leadership in Canada and on the world stage through the 2008-09 financial crisis.
"He was a source of strength and financial leadership for the country during what was probably the most challenging economic period since the Great Depression," said Gord Nixon, the head of Royal Bank of Canada (TSX:RY).
"(Flaherty) provided great global leadership. I think he would be recognized by his peers as being not just a source of strength to Canada but a leading voice in terms of dealing with what was a global crisis."
Flaherty, 64, a father of triplet sons, died suddenly Thursday at his Ottawa home, less than a month after he retired as the Harper government's first and only finance minister. He spent eight years in the job, helping bring the economy through the banking collapse on Wall Street and the fall out from the disaster.
"My thoughts go to his wife, to the boys," International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde said in Washington, where Flaherty was a fixture at G20 and IMF meetings.
"We had a chat in Sydney, and a laugh. I would never have imagined he wouldn't be with us. He was a friend."
As finance minister, Flaherty opened the spending taps during the economic crisis, running a $56-billion deficit, bailing out the auto sector and spending freely to boost the ailing economy.
He also became a leading voice during the crisis globally and earned international recognition for his efforts.
In recent years, he returned to his fiscal conservative roots and moved to tighten spending to put the federal budget back on track to return to surplus.
Nixon said Flaherty wasn't always easy to deal with because he "didn't always see eye-to-eye" with Canadian banks, but the sector knew that he was fair.
Flaherty rankled the Canadian investment community when he backed away from a campaign pledge by taxing income trusts like corporations.
He has also took heat when he publicly chided BMO last year for lowering the its key five-year mortgage rate, warning the super-low rate could help overheat the housing market.
"There were certainly areas where we had different views but I think he was balanced in terms of his approach," Nixon said. "Jim was very much a policy person who focused on what was the right thing and what was in the best interest of the country... and that is very difficult sometimes for a politician to do because politics is politics."
The Investment Industry Association of Canada called it a "very sad day."
"There is little doubt he will go down in history as one of Canada’s most effective finance ministers," said IIAC president and CEO Ian Russell in a statement.
The Canadian Bankers Association also paid tribute to the role Flaherty played in helping Canada emerge from the 2008 economic crisis.
"In our dealings with him, we always appreciated his candour, dedication and sense of humour," said Terry Campbell, president.