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(Tonia Cowan/The Globe and Mail)
(Tonia Cowan/The Globe and Mail)

obituary

Jim Flaherty's values were forged by blue-collar roots, a big Irish family and heartbreaking adversity Add to ...

Right from birth, the odds were stacked against Jim Flaherty’s success.

The sixth of eight children in a family of Liberal supporters. A hockey player measuring in at 5-foot-3. A kid from a blue-collar suburb navigating the leafy, gentlemanly climes of Princeton University. A twice-defeated candidate for leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives. Hands on the country’s purse strings just as all the money was vanishing.

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Yet in the end, Canada’s flinty, wise-cracking former finance minister – who had little aptitude in high school for calculus or chemistry – was honoured in a way that few other Canadian politicians ever will be. After he resigned as finance minister in March, his face was on Manhattan’s NASDAQ billboard, looming omnisciently over Times Square.

A bootstraps philosopher credited with restoring a balanced budget and helping to raise Canada’s image as a sterling example of fiscal stewardship during a crisis, Mr. Flaherty also wasn’t above telling others to put their own houses in order – whether it was dressing down European countries or even his own province – for their fiscal profligacy.

In a CTV interview last year, he mused that his feistiness may have come from his family’s pirate roots in Ireland, where his family name is inscribed on the city gates of Galway in Gaelic. “Dear God, protect us from the wrath of the O’Flahertys,” he recalled it saying. “I thought, you know, it’s not bad training for finance minister.”

As quick to joke about himself as he was to mock others, Mr. Flaherty was hardly a one-dimensional, one-note ideologue. He could be personable but caustic, socially conservative but sometimes liberal. “Jim was a firebrand when it came to articulating conservative values and conservative principles,” said Ontario Progressive Conservative Frank Klees. But Mr. Klees pointed out that he went head to head with many socially conservative colleagues, persuading them to adopt legislation to provide same-sex couples with pension benefits.

As a boy growing up in the working-class town of Lachine in Montreal’s west end, young Jim earned his first keep doing what most self-starting, self-disciplined kids do: he delivered newspapers. Small for a hockey player, he scrapped it out in the rinks in the winter and sailed on Lac St. Louis in the warmer months. “If we wanted extras like new skates, we were expected to work for them,” he told the Hamilton Spectator in 2002.

The sturdy domestic management of his mother, Mary, must have made an impact on him. “She was certainly in control of the situation. She had to be. I mean, she had eight kids running around and limited resources.”

Following the lead of his overachieving brother David, then teaching at prestigious Princeton University, Mr. Flaherty went to the Ivy League school on a hockey scholarship. It was there that he heard Robert Kennedy speak about the importance of public service.

In the summer of 1968, at the age of 18, he returned from New Jersey and had a political awakening of sorts, knocking on doors for the Trudeau campaign. The next summer, he told The Globe and Mail’s Tara Perkins, he had his best job ever: waterfront director at a camp in rural Quebec. “I didn’t realize until I got there that it was an all-girls camp with all girls as staff and I was the only guy.”

The zigzagging adventures of his early days soon hardened into the serious narrative of conservatism. He graduated from Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Law School, was married briefly, and was a Bay Street lawyer while growing increasingly disheartened with Mr. Trudeau’s laissez-faire attitude toward spending. “It was really irresponsible,” he recalled, “these deficits and debts and the inflation that followed.”

Remarried to Christine Elliott, the couple had triplet boys, John, Galen and Quinn, in 1991. After practising law for decades, he helped found his own firm in 1994 and a year later entered provincial politics as an MPP for Whitby-Ajax in Mike Harris’s Common Sense Tory landslide. Mr. Flaherty quickly aligned himself with the family values caucus of social conservatism. After winning re-election in 1999, he became attorney-general, a legal pulpit he seemed to relish, introducing a crackdown on so-called squeegee kids on Toronto’s streets. There didn’t seem to be a wedge issue this pro-life politician didn’t like.

Mr. Flaherty ran to succeed Mr. Harris in the 2002 Tory leadership race, but lost to Ernie Eves, whom he had labelled a “pale pink imitation” of then Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty. (One of his supporters showed up at a leadership debate dressed in a Pink Panther costume.) The campaign was also noted for its hospitality suites, replete with Irish whisky and Irish dancers. But it could also be remembered for its pledges to sell off the Liquor Control Board, make homelessness illegal, and ban teacher strikes.

After another failed run for leadership in 2004, Mr. Flaherty heard the siren call of Ottawa in 2005. While his wife took his seat in the legislature, he was elected in 2006 and became Finance Minister in Stephen Harper’s new minority government, juggling an economy that was taking a turn for the ominous and massive controversy over taxing income trusts. On the brighter side, his collection of 70-plus green ties, often given as gifts, took on a semi-legendary status. “It’s more frugal to wear ties that are given to you,” he told CTV’s Don Martin.

Mr. Flaherty also favoured the MPs’ gym, where he said he had many achievements that went beyond the Sisyphean victories on the elliptical machine. The bipartisan spirit of a workout led to deals with then party leaders Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois, Jack Layton of the NDP. “How serious can people be when people walk around in shorts and T-shirts?” he said.

As Mr. Flaherty and the Conservatives successfully reinvigorated in the late part of the last decade with the help of Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney (Mr. Flaherty’s recommendation), his stewardship won accolades. In 2009, EUROMoney Magazine named him Finance Minister of the Year, saying he “enhanced his country’s reputation for sound fiscal policy that takes full account of social justice, while a strong regulatory regime has kept the financial sector out of the chaos.”

He spent time with his wife and three sons in Whitby, which helped ground him. One of his triplet boys, John, has encephalitis, a swelling of the brain that happened when he was an infant bitten by a mosquito. “If there is one thing you can count on in Jim Flaherty’s calendar [it was] his annual baseball trip with John,” recalls Regan Watts, a former senior aide to Mr. Flaherty at Finance and a close family friend. Mr. Flaherty and his son would travel to a different U.S. city for two or three days to watch their beloved Blue Jays.

Early last year, Mr. Flaherty announced he had an acute autoimmune skin disease called bullous pemphigoid and less than a month ago, the 64-year-old said he was stepping down to go into the private sector and that health was not a factor.

“It breaks your heart,” said Mr. Watts. “They gave their father over to public service, willingly or not, for nearly 20 years and they just got him back.”

Four years ago, Mr. Flaherty wrote a column about John called “What Heaven Looks Like,” for the Canadian Association of Community Living. “Being John’s father has changed my perception of what really matters in life,” Mr. Flaherty wrote. “The months during his second year of life when John was grievously ill and near death in the hospital were the most desperate time, but a time that I always recall when faced with some crisis or another – all comparisons fail when compared to the desperation of that time. John gave us context about what really matters.”

In the same letter, in which he described a jaunt on a submersible at the Great Barrier Reef, he remembered a crystalline vision: “Looking out the window at the sun’s rays shimmering through the turquoise water on the colourful fish and plants, when John said simply and eloquently, ‘That’s what heaven looks like.’ So now I know.”

With files from Karen Howlett and Jane Taber

INTERVIEW EXCERPTS

It was a touchy subject: What was wrong with Jim Flaherty?His face had grown bloated and puffy and he’d gained a lot of weight. He didn’t sound like himself, either. In a television interview in Davos, Switzerland, in late January, 2013, the then-finance minister appeared red-faced and sleepy, and his voice sounded distorted.

Mr. Flaherty had wanted to keep his health condition private, but as questions and rumours persisted, he decided to speak out. In an interview with The Globe and Mail’s Steven Chase on Jan. 30, 2013, Mr. Flaherty opened up about his battle with a rare, blistering skin disease, bullous pemphigoid. Here is a portion of what Mr. Flaherty told The Globe.

This will be a different interview. I will just start. I don’t usually talk about my health because it is private. But there’s been quite a bit of concern about what I look like these days: appearance concerns. And that is related to my health. And so I want to make that clear: what’s going on there. It’s related to medication. It’s not life-threatening. And it doesn’t affect my ability to do my job.

Of late, I’ve been getting too many questions about my appearance and the weight gain – and people [are] concerned. Most people are quite cautious about what they say, but a few people have said to me: ‘Do you have cancer? Steroids? What’s going on? Are you going to die?’ That kind of thing. And obviously, I am not. I mean, I will die eventually, but not over a dermatological issue.

I am a pretty tough guy. I’m an old hockey player. This will pass and it’s much better now than it was before, so I have more confidence now that this will pass. I don’t have any problem doing my budget work, which I have been doing, including all the month of January. I would still like to stay until the budget is balanced.

Follow me on Twitter: @Craigoffman

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