File-This May 2, 2006, file pho to shows then Finance Minister Jim Flaherty shaking hands with Prime Minister Stephen Harper as he tables the Budget in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. 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 April 10, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Wattie, File)
TORONTO (AP) — Former Canadian finance minister Jim Flaherty, a fixture on the world financial stage who stepped down just three weeks ago, has died. He was 64.
Flaherty’s family released a statement that said he died Thursday in Ottawa. Mike Harris, Ontario’s former premier and a friend, said he suffered a massive heart attack.
Flaherty, who had the job since 2006, was the longest-serving finance minister among the Group of Seven leading industrial economies until he announced he was stepping down March 18 to return to the private sector. He battled a rare skin disease over the last year, but had said his decision to leave politics was not related.
Flaherty was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s only finance minister since Harper took power eight years ago. He is credited with helping get Canada back on track to a balanced budget after pumping stimulus money into the economy following the 2008 financial crisis.
The House of Commons in Ottawa abruptly suspended business as word of his death circulated and the finance ministers of the G-20 paid tribute to Flaherty at the start of their meetings in Washington on Thursday.
Australian Treasury Minister Joe Hockey, the current G-20 chairman, opened the group’s meeting at International Monetary Fund headquarters by describing Flaherty as a “‘very decent man heartfelt in his determination to deliver to Canada a better quality of life.”
“Canada is poorer for his passing and we are all poorer,” he said.
His successor, Joe Oliver, said Flaherty delivered 10 budgets “and never wavered in his determination to build a better country. He was a great statesman.”
Mark Carney, the Canadian who is the new governor of the Bank of England, said Flaherty played a key role in getting the G-20 off the ground and helping it deal with the 2008 global financial crisis and its aftermath,
“He was a true believer in multilateralism and urged members to pursue the right policies and believed in fixing banks, balancing budgets and adopting sound monetary policies,” Carney said.
Harper addressed members of his government in brief comments that were televised across the nation.
“I learned a short while ago that our colleague, my partner and my friend, Jim Flaherty, has passed away suddenly today,” said Harper. “This comes as an unexpected and a terrible shock …”
Opposition New Democrat leader Thomas Mulcair choked back tears as he expressed condolences to the family.
“We’re very, very sad at the loss of a great Canadian. Jim Flaherty was an extraordinarily dedicated public servant,” Mulcair said.
The flag on the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa was lowered to half-mast.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said in a statement that Flaherty was admired and respected by leaders throughout the world.
“Known for his drive and hard work, Jim was instrumental in helping Canada navigate the global financial crisis. He was also a devoted advocate for sound fiscal policy and making sure workers had the chance to retire with dignity,” Lew said.
IMF chief Christine Lagarde said in a statement that Flaherty was a principled and forthright colleague.
“I speak for the whole international community represented by the IMF membership when I say that his passing is a great loss,” she said.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford said he was devastated. Flaherty, a friend of the Ford family, became choked up last year when he was asked about Ford’s struggles with drugs and alcohol. Ford, who acknowledged smoking crack last year in a drunken stupor, vowed to quit alcohol after seeing Flaherty become emotional on television.
Flaherty also became emotional in a February television interview when he was asked about speaking out for what he believed. He said he always spoke his mind to Harper.
“I’m one of the few ministers that has always been difficult. If I don’t agree with something I make my views known and he hasn’t fired me yet,” Flaherty said while fighting back tears in an interview with the Canadian Broadcast Corp.
Flaherty acknowledged last year that he was suffering from a rare skin condition known as bullous pemphigoid, requiring him to take medication that led to weight gain. He also appeared fatigued at some public appearances.
Ottawa police said they responded to a medical call shortly after noon at Flaherty’s residence. He is survived by his wife Christine and his triplet sons, John, Galen and Quinn.
Born in Lachine, Quebec, Flaherty went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a law degree from York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School.
Flaherty spent almost 20 years in politics, including stints as minister of finance, attorney general and deputy premier at the provincial level in Ontario. In 2006, after two unsuccessful bids to lead the Ontario Conservatives, Flaherty entered federal politics. Harper’s Conservative government plans on entering an election next year with a budget surplus, and Harper has praised Flaherty for helping make that happen.
Canada’s commodity-rich economy avoided the worst of the crisis and has fared better than other nations. There was no mortgage meltdown or subprime crisis in Canada.
Flaherty took over from former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin’s Liberals in 2006 and broadly stuck to his predecessor’s approach, though Flaherty cut taxes and, when recession struck, pumped stimulus money into the economy. He was also an outspoken critic of European countries for their handling of the debt crisis and urged them to get their debt problems under control.
Associated Press writers Marty Crutsinger and Harry Dunphy in Washington contributed to this report.