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The Speaker of Canada's Senate, Pierre Claude Nolin, has died, leaving the much-maligned institution without a leader in the midst of its greatest crisis.

The man who was named last fall by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to be the Speaker of the Senate during the most challenging period of the Red Chamber's history has died after a lengthy illness.

Pierre Claude Nolin, 64, succumbed to pancreatic cancer on Thursday evening.

A Montreal-born lawyer who worked in Conservative backrooms since the age of 16, Mr. Nolin had been a member of the Senate since June, 1993, when he was appointed at the age of 42 by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney.

"I did it because he was a man of uncommon integrity," Mr. Mulroney said Friday in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "He was an authentic voice for Quebec but he loved Canada deeply. And he was extremely respectful of institutions, be it the courts, be it the Senate, be it the House of Commons. He thought that Canada's institutions themselves played a key part in our success as a nation."

Mr. Nolin's death leaves a vacancy in the Speaker's chair at a time when the raison d'être for the Senate is being called into question. Suspended Senator Mike Duffy is on trial for the alleged abuse of his expense account.

As Speaker, Mr. Nolin was heavily involved trying to strengthen the Senate, reform the administration and communication, and make it less partisan and more effective.

He worked on Mr. Mulroney's campaign for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives in 1976 and, over the years, was a key player for many other politicians.

Mr. Nolin leaves his wife, Camille, and three grown children. His body will lie in repose in the Senate chamber on Tuesday and his funeral will take place in Montreal on Thursday.