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Finance Minister Jim Flaherty takes part in a press conference in Ottawa on Jan. 16, 2013. (SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty takes part in a press conference in Ottawa on Jan. 16, 2013. (SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

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Flaherty's death comes as a 'terrible shock,' Harper says Add to ...

The House of Commons is silent and its members are in shock over the sudden news that former finance minister Jim Flaherty has died, just weeks after resigning from cabinet.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a sombre message to his caucus Thursday afternoon.

“Today is a very sad day for me, for our government and for all of our country. I learned a short while ago that our colleague, my partner and my friend, has passed away suddenly today,” Mr. Harper said, as his wife, Laureen, who was at his side, wiped tears from her eyes and looked upwards.

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“This comes as an unexpected and a terrible shock to Jim’s family, to our caucus and to Laureen and me,” said Mr. Harper. “And it is with the heaviest of hearts that I offer my family’s condolences and I know the condolences  of the entire Parliament and the government of Canada.”

As Conservative MPs and senators waited for Mr. Harper's arrival, several embraced and comforted each other, while others sat quietly, wearing grim expressions and keeping their eyes on the front of the room.

Labour Minister Kellie Leitch, a close friend who viewed Mr. Flaherty as a political mentor who encouraged her to enter politics, was visibly upset in caucus and received a hug from the Prime Minister.

Dr. Leitch, who is also a pediatric surgeon, later issued a statement expressing her sympathy to the family.

“My heart breaks for them and words cannot express what they must be going through,” she said. “He was my champion… I’ll miss him dearly.”

Ottawa police say they received a medical call to Mr. Flaherty’s condo building at 12:27 p.m. The call was “VSA” – vital signs absent – and was considered non-suspicious, police spokesperson Carole Lavigne said. A source said he died of a heart attack.

Mr. Flaherty, 64, had resigned from his finance post on March 18, saying he planned on taking a position in the private sector.

As news spread, the House of Commons was suspended for roughly 10 minutes just after 2:15 p.m. MPs from all parties consoled each other during the break. The House then adjourned for the day and the Canadian flag atop the Peace Tower has been lowered in his honour.

Mr. Flaherty was first elected in 2006, and served as finance minister nearly his entire time as an MP. A lawyer by training, he’d served previously for 10 years as a provincial MPP in Ontario, holding the finance portfolio and other roles.

Mr. Flaherty’s family issued a statement to the media Thursday afternoon.

“Christine Elliott and her triplet sons, John, Galen and Quinn would like to make Canadians aware that her beloved husband and father passed away peacefully today in Ottawa,” it said. “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. The family asks for privacy at this time.”

A brief and emotional statement to reporters on Parliament Hill from NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair underscored the fact that Mr. Flaherty was well-liked and respected on both sides of the House of Commons.

 “Catherine and I want to express to Christine Elliott our profound sadness at the departure of our friend Jim Flaherty. All of his colleagues here in the House of Commons share in that loss. He’s a good person,” Mr. Mulcair said, choking up in the House of Commons foyer, as he passed on condolences on behalf of himself and his wife.

Mr. Flaherty had been battling a rare skin condition. In January 2013, Mr. Flaherty confirmed that he was undergoing treatment for bullous pemphigoid, and that the steroids he was taking were responsible for his recent weight gain and puffy face.

Over the past year, he often appeared to be in physical discomfort and had scaled back his normally heavy schedule of international travel.

Mr. Flaherty’s family had urged him over the Christmas holidays to step down from politics and the high-pressure finance portfolio.

His wife, who is deputy leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, had told reporters that her husband was planning to spend more time with their three sons and to find a job in the private sector.

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest said he spoke by phone with Mr. Flaherty a few weeks ago. They discussed the idea of Mr. Flaherty joining Mr. Charest’s law firm in Montreal, McCarthy Tétrault.

“He was in very good spirits. He seemed very much at peace with his decision to move on” from politics, Mr. Charest said in an interview. “He was open to the idea of working with our firm.”

He added that “there was nothing that I detected that would leave me to believe that he had any major health problems.”

President of the Treasury Board Tony Clement had been colleagues with Mr. Flahery for 25 years, first in the Ontario legislature and then on the front benches of Mr. Harper’s cabinet. They ran against each other for the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservative party. But most of all, said Mr. Clement, they were friends.

“Even before (former Ontario premier) Mike Harris was in power or Stephen Harper was a twinkling in the eye, we were in the grass roots together,” Mr. Clement, the Treasury Board President, said in an interview from Madrid where he is attending a meeting.

“I sat beside him for eight budgets and made sure his water glass was full and would throw a couple of bon mots his way,” said Mr. Clement. “He has that Irish charm. He loved being the Irish Canadian. And I don’t mean to make fun of his height, but he was the little tough guy. And I think at the end of it, he was just so sensible and he was the right guy at the right time to be our finance minister.”

Mr. Clement said Mr. Flaherty was an institution in Conservative polices who had his own flare and joie de vivre – and, despite his retirement from cabinet and the health problems be has endured, the news of his passing came as a shock and a surprise. “I thought he was going to be healthier and happier and get that spring back in his step, and all of those things that would come with the burden off.”

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak described Mr. Flaherty as “an incredible man” and “a legend in Canadian politics.”

“I’m heartbroken,” a visibly emotional Mr. Hudak said outside his Queen’s Park office. “Jim’s a hero. He’s been a mentor. He’s been a friend.”

Mr. Hudak served with Mr. Flaherty in the provincial cabinets of Mike Harris and Ernie Eves and co-chaired his bid for the party leadership. He recalled listening to Mr. Flaherty speak during that campaign, sitting casually on a stool in front of a room full of party members.

“What stood out was how much he loved Whitby, his hometown, and how that instructed the values of the decisions he made, how everything was about the people back home,” Mr. Hudak said, appearing to fight back tears. “You saw the man, you saw the huge heart, you saw what he was made of. The sad reality is, he’s gone. You never have a chance to say goodbye, and thanks.”

Premier Kathleen Wynne remembered Mr. Flaherty as “a feisty, articulate spirit in this place.”

“Jim Flaherty was a determined servant of the people,” she told reporters. “Today Canada has lost a great man.”

A sombre mood descended on Queen’s Park as MPPs and staff learned of Mr. Flaherty’s death Thursday afternoon. Many of them gathered in small groups in hallways and offices, looks of shock written on their faces.

When it was announced in the legislature, the house held a minute of silence and then recessed before adjourning for the day to mark his death.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who with his family had strong ties with the former finance minister, read a brief statement, his voice breaking and his brother Doug Ford by his side.

“He was a close friend of the family for many, many years.  I can never thank him enough for his friendship and his loyalty through the years. He was an honourable man, husband, father and politician who dedicated his life to his family and to the Canadian public service,” Mr. Ford said.

Mr. Ford later added: “It is with deep sadness and a heavy heart that I say goodbye to a very special friend. We love you, Jim. We’ll miss you. ”

Mr. Ford’s father served in the Ontario legislature with Mr. Flaherty. The federal politician stood by the mayor when others in his party were condemning Mr. Ford after he admitted to smoking crack cocaine, tearing up at one point during a news conference when asked about the mayor’s troubles.  

With files from Kathryn Blaze Carlson, Steven Chase, Elizabeth Church, Gloria Galloway, Kim Mackrael, Adrian Morrow, Ingrid Peritz, and Josh Wingrove

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