James " Jim" Flaherty, Canada's finance minister, pauses while speaking during a press conference after releasing the 2014 Federal Budget on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. Flaherty ramped up efforts to return the country to surplus in a budget that raises taxes on cigarettes and cuts benefits to retired government workers while providing more aid for carmakers. Photographer: Cole Burston/Bloomberg Cole Burston/Bloomberg
Canada's business leaders were shocked and saddened by the sudden death of former finance minister Jim Flaherty on Thursday, and were quick to laud him for the steady leadership he provided in a lifetime of public service.
Emergency workers responded to a call at Flaherty's Ottawa home on Thursday. News later emerged that he had died at the age of 64.
Flaherty was Canada's finance minister for eight years until he stepped down just last month.
Joe Oliver, who stepped into Flaherty's shoes as Canada's finance minister, issued a statement today remembering his contribution.
"I am deeply saddened to learn of Jim Flaherty's passing. Jim Flaherty was an honourable, dedicated and exceptional man who loved his country," Oliver said.
"As the guiding force of 10 federal budgets, Flaherty never wavered in his abiding commitment to build a better country for all Canadians, a legacy that will ensure his memory as one of Canada's great statesmen," he said.
Plaudits were also coming from colleagues on Bay Street.
"We have lost a great Canadian who was dedicated to strengthening our county and our province and was recognized by his global peers as a source of strength during the financial crisis," outgoing Royal Bank of Canada president Gordon Nixon said. "My thoughts are with [his wife] Christine and their boys as they deal with this tragic loss."
In an interview with CBC, Nixon remembered Flaherty as “good listener” who had strong opinions but also put policy ahead of politics.
“What I always admired about Jim... was that he was always very focused on policy. It’s very difficult for a politician to put policy above politics, but I think in the finance portfolio it’s perhaps more important than any other portfolio,” Nixon said.
Nixon said Flaherty consulted frequently with the financial sector, particularly during the 2008 economic crisis.
Flaherty on housing market
He recalled the finance department’s decision to cap amortization on CMHC- insured mortgages at 25 years as a strong decision that really helped cool the hot housing market.
“There was a general consensus that if there was a way to responsibly intervene to slow down housing, it was the right thing to do. I think he took a very balanced approach to that,” Nixon said.
Economist Ben Rabidoux, president of North Cove Advisors, echoed that sentiment. "Jim was a great finance minister who was dealt a very bad hand during the financial crisis but played that hand as skillfully as any Canadian could have asked for," he said.
Flaherty spent particular time on the housing file during his tenure, moving multiple times to tinker with mortgage lending rules — first loosening them to make houses more affordable, then tightening them repeatedly to slow the apparent runaway growth of mortgage debt.
Rabidoux says he spoke with Flaherty on housing policy and respected his work on the file. "Whether you agree with him or not," Rabidoux said, "every Canadian should be thankful for his leadership."
Flaherty stickhandled Canada's economy through numerous crises and, broadly speaking, earned plaudits for his stewardship of the economic file.
Former governor of the Bank of Canada Mark Carney, now Britain’s central banker, recalled Flaherty’s contributions during the financial crisis.
“He was a true believer in multilateralism, leading, urging, cajoling the members around the table to pursue policies that would promote strong, sustainable and balanced growth for all,” Carney said in a statement.
“He was a man of principle who believed in fixing banks when they were broken, sound money and balanced budgets," Carney continued.
"This is a sad day for Canada, as we've lost someone who dedicated himself to working on behalf of the country over a long period of public service," CIBC economist Avery Shenfeld said of his legacy. "While as in any political career there were bumps in the road, he will be remembered as one who was in the hot seat during the worst global downturn since the depression, and who played a role in cushioning that blow to our economy."
Met often with private sector leaders
Flaherty was one of Canada's longest-serving finance ministers, and met with private sector leaders frequently to seek input — and sometimes offer advice. In one high-profile instance last year, for example, he took the unprecedented step of reprimanding a number of lenders for offering mortgage lending rates that he felt were dangerously low given consumers' debt loads.
"I will miss working with Jim," TD Bank president Ed Clark said. "I greatly admired his passion for improving the lives of Canadians"
"He always had the best interest of the country in mind," Royal Bank economist Craig Wright added.
Kevin McCarthy, who was the former chief of staff for Jim Flaherty and before that was his chief policy adviser, recalled Flaherty’s efforts to gather ideas from influential Canadians.
“He did like to listen – he listened to people. One of the first things he had me do when I started in Ottawa was he started a summer policy retreat and brought together 25 leaders from across the country – academics, CEOs – for a day and a half and discussed public policy,” McCarthy said in an interview with CBC's The Lang & O'Leary Exchange.
McCarthy also recalled his former boss as an innovator, who wanted to use his term in government to make a difference.
“He cared about people and he wanted to make a difference,” McCarthy said.
Kevin O’Leary, an entrepreneur and co-host of CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange, pointed out the impact Flaherty had internationally.
"His management of the financial crisis and his policies in that 36-month period were observed globally and as a result he built a unique brand for himself and the country," O'Leary said.
O'Leary said it was sad Flaherty did not have the opportunity to step into the private sector, as he would have been ideal in a leadership role.
"He could have moved into some interesting positions internationally. They love him in Britain, They love him in Switzerland," O'Leary said.
Chisholm Pothier, director of communications at the finance department, travelled internationally with Flaherty during the financial crisis and saw first-hand his stature on the world stage in meetings with the EU and IMF.
"In those meetings, people looked to Canada, they looked to Canada as an example of how to handle it. They looked to Canada with envy," Pothier said.
"It wasn’t necessarily that we had these natural attributes... it was that we had largely, I think, good fiscal and monetary leadership and Jim Flaherty played such a huge role in that," he added.
Pothier said Flaherty's dedication to social justice is often overlooked.
“Every single budget he introduced had significant measures for people with disabilities, most significantly the disabilities savings fund," he said.