04/10/2014 02:27 EDT | Updated 06/10/2014 05:59 EDT

Former finance minister Jim Flaherty dies suddenly at age 64

OTTAWA - A Canadian parliament riven by bitter partisan rancour came together as one amid the shocking news that Jim Flaherty, the impish, Irish former Conservative finance minister, died suddenly Thursday at his Ottawa residence.

The man Conservatives liked to call the best finance minister in the world had stepped down from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet less than a month ago after more than eight years and 10 federal budgets — the last, in February, effectively balanced after years of recession-fighting stimulus red ink.

Harper, accompanied by his sobbing wife Laureen, told an ashen assembly of Conservative MPs and senators that "our colleague, my partner and my friend" had passed away, "an unexpected and terrible shock."

Moments earlier, the daily question period in the House of Commons — the scene of a near brawl 24 hours earlier — had been cancelled as teary MPs from all parties crossed the aisles to console one another.

In Washington, a meeting of G20 finance ministers opened its doors to the media and paid tribute to Flaherty, considered a dean among global treasurers after the 2008-09 financial crisis rocked world economies.

On Friday, the Commons will suspend regular business and question period so parliamentarians can pay tribute to Flaherty.

Flaherty, 64, served as Harper's only finance minister from the time the Conservatives won office in January 2006 until last month, when he stepped down, saying he would not run in the 2015 election and wanted more time with his family.

A statement from his wife Christine Elliott, herself a member of the Ontario legislature, and their triplet sons John, Galen and Quinn, all born in 1991, said Flaherty died peacefully.

"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 statement read.

Flaherty had been battling a rare and painful skin disorder for more than a year but insisted after delivering his Feb. 11 budget that he was on the mend.

He was considered a congenial, twinkle-eyed counterweight in cabinet to the equally experienced but sometimes flinty prime minister, someone able to challenge and complement Harper.

"An Irish lion is gone," Tony Clement, the Treasury Board president who also served previously with Flaherty in the Ontario legislature, posted on Twitter.

Elizabeth May, the Green party leader, summarized the mood in Parliament when she recalled, "I never saw Jim Flaherty engage in a single moment that could be described as mean-spirited.

"And to be well-loved in politics after all these years, that's a tribute to the man."

The House of Commons abruptly suspended its sitting before question period began as word of the death spread. Opposition MPs spilled into the Commons foyer looking stunned, many with red-rimmed, tear-filled eyes.

Down the hall, a sombre Harper gathered his caucus to mourn in a room that minutes before had been festooned for a bilateral visit by the Peruvian president.

"Today is a very sad day for me, for our government and for all of our country," said Harper. "I learned a short while ago that our colleague, my partner and my friend Jim Flaherty had passed away suddenly today."

Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair's voice quivered and he had to squeeze his eyes against tears as he remembered Flaherty "for his pleasant demeanour and strength of character."

The Ontario legislature, where Flaherty sat for a decade, held a moment's silence for the former provincial finance minister and recessed.

His sudden death, at his Ottawa condo minutes away from Parliament Hill, carried echoes of the December 1998 death of Liberal Shaughnessy Cohen on the floor of the House.

It was a universally sobering reminder of the fleeting passions of partisanship that consume those in elected politics.

On Wednesday, claims and countercharges had flown across the chamber over an acrimonious rewrite of federal elections law.

"So you know, with the antics that took place yesterday — and everybody knew it was sort of a crazy day in the House yesterday — a day like today puts it all in perspective," said veteran Nova Scotia Liberal MP Roger Cuzner.

Flaherty's policy resume includes the Registered Disability Savings Plan, an issue close to his heart after raising a son mentally disabled by an infant bout of encephalitis. He bought back billions in insured mortgages during the banking crisis, sharply curtailed income trusts and introduced the Tax Free Savings Account.

Chisholm Pothier, who was Flaherty's first federal spokesman and worked with him for about seven years in all, said his boss — despite being an ardent tax cutter — was never the right-wing ideologue his partisan critics made him out to be.

"He always said through the (global economic) crisis when he was running up very substantial deficits, which would not be his preferred approach, 'I'm not an ideologue, I'm a pragmatic person,'" Pothier said in an interview.

Flaherty was looking forward to returning to the private sector and enjoying his family, said Pothier.

"The timing was right, he had brought in a budget that was essentially balanced, the world was his oyster in a way. It's very sad."

— With files from Julian Beltrame, Jennifer Ditchburn and Joan Bryden

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