TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada’s political elite and hundreds of well-wishers paid final respects to former Finance Minister Jim Flaherty at a state funeral on Wednesday, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper depicting Flaherty as a man who put his own needs aside in the service of his country.
Flaherty’s death of a heart attack last week shocked Canadians, coming less than a month after the 64-year-old stepped down after eight years running the country’s finances.
Well-wishers packed St. James Cathedral in downtown Toronto, wearing green scarves in tribute to Flaherty’s Irish heritage, which he often referenced. He typically wore a green tie for big announcements.
“He was a man who was highly principled and ruthlessly pragmatic, combative but engaging, smart, very smart, and educated, while never assuming that he knew it all,” Harper, wearing a green tie, told the crowd.
Flags at government buildings in Ottawa and at the Toronto headquarters of the country’s banks flew at half-staff in tribute to a man credited with shepherding Canada’s economy and banking system through the financial crisis of the last decade.
In a humor-filled eulogy, Harper noted Flaherty’s own self-deprecating sense of humor, which often focused on the finance minister’s diminutive stature.
“But short as he was, upon the world stage, he often strode like a giant,” Harper said.
The third longest serving finance minister in Canadian history, Flaherty assumed the job when Harper’s Conservative Party took power in February 2006.
At the time of his resignation, he was the only cabinet minister that Harper had never moved, and was one of the few Conservatives who appeared to have license to speak his mind in a government known for its tight communications controls.
Many well-wishers arrived at the cathedral early in unseasonably cold April weather to get a seat in the sanctuary, while police closed off roads around the church to vehicular traffic.
Along with Harper and dozens of current and former Canadian politicians, the mourners included former prime ministers Brian Mulroney, John Turner, and Kim Campbell, as well as business leaders and Mark Carney, the Bank of England chief who worked closely with Flaherty at the Canadian finance ministry and later when Carney was governor of the Bank of Canada.
The state funeral, typically reserved for heads of government and state and sitting cabinet ministers, was the first in Canada since opposition New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton’s in 2011.
As a former cabinet minister, Flaherty’s state funeral was not mandated by protocol, but like Layton‘s, conferred at Harper’s discretion.
The father of triplet sons and husband of Ontario politician Christine Elliott, Flaherty left the government on track to balance its books by 2015 after running up the largest deficit in history in nominal terms in the fight against the 2008-09 recession.
Initially criticized as being slow to react to the crisis, he then shrugged off his conservative instincts and introduced massive government stimulus measures to soften the blow on the economy.
Harper revealed that Flaherty had told him he wanted to step down in 2010, but that he would stay on for one year to get the country closer to a balanced budget.
He put off his departure three more times after that, despite suffering in the past two years from a rare autoimmune disease called bullous pemphigoid, which Harper said made Flaherty’s job harder to do and sometimes hard to watch.
“He deliberately put aside his own plans and put off his goals for his family, because in his heart Jim wasn’t in this, as is the stereotype, for money and for power,” Harper said.
“He was driven by conviction, of loyalty to the cause, and of duty to the country.”
Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson; and Peter Galloway