04/10/2014 04:17 EDT | Updated 06/10/2014 05:59 EDT

Rob Ford: I can't thank Jim Flaherty enough for his loyalty and friendship

TORONTO - An emotional Rob Ford, who watched Jim Flaherty stand up for him during some of his darkest hours, said he can never thank him enough for his friendship and loyalty.

Toronto's troubled mayor choked back tears Thursday after learning of the former federal finance minister's sudden and unexpected death.

"Jim will be remembered as a relentless fighter and champion of the people," Ford said.

"It is with deep sadness and a heavy heart that I say goodbye to a very special friend. We love you Jim, we'll miss you."

Flaherty was tight with the Ford family, going back to his time in the Ontario legislature with the mayor's father and former MPP Doug Ford Sr.

And it was Flaherty who nearly came to tears last November amid calls for Ford to resign or seek help following stunning allegations that he had smoked crack cocaine.

"At the end of the day, he has to make his own decision about what he ought to do," a visibly upset Flaherty said at the time.

The mayor, who is still embroiled in the scandal, described Flaherty as an honourable man who dedicated his life to his family and to public service.

"As finance minister ... he kept the country on track in the most difficult of financial times," Ford added. "Canada would not be where it is today without the efforts of Jim Flaherty."

Former Ontario premier Ernie Eves, who beat Flaherty for the provincial party's leadership in 2002, described him as a thoroughly decent, hard-working, professional and humble man.

"He developed a well-deserved reputation as being probably the leader of the democratic Western world in terms of policies to deal with the recent recession, to take us through those difficult times, and Canada actually led by example for the rest of the world," he told The Canadian Press.

"I think that's something that he always will be remembered for."

Flaherty didn't just steer Canada away from the economic abyss that swallowed so many others, but was instrumental in rescuing Ontario more than a decade earlier, his former colleagues said.

"When I think of Jim Flaherty, I think of someone who passionately believed in responsible government, in fiscal responsibility. That's his brand," said Tory MPP Frank Klees, a former cabinet minister.

"That's what he left here in this province ... that's what he took to the federal level of parliament."

As news of Flaherty's death spread in the halls of Queen's Park, members of the legislature stood for a minute of silence before suddenly adjourning.

Many wandered out into the halls with shocked faces, some unable to find the words to describe how they felt.

"I feel empty," said longtime MPP John O'Toole, who worked as Flaherty's parliamentary assistant when he was finance minister.

Opposition Leader Tim Hudak, who worked with Flaherty in government and co-chaired his leadership campaign, could barely hold back tears as he spoke of his friend, a "legend in Canadian politics."

"You saw the man and you saw the huge heart, you saw what he was made of," he said.

"The sad reality is he's gone and I never had a chance to say goodbye and thanks."

The loss is even more profound as Flaherty's wife, health critic Christine Elliott, is a member of their party's family, Hudak said.

"Jim's three sons should be damn proud of what their father accomplished," he said.

Flaherty will go down in history as was one of the pioneers of the controversial Common Sense Revolution — along with John Baird — that propelled the Tories to power in 1995.

They cut taxes and slashed spending in Ontario, including a 22 per cent reduction in welfare rates. The drastic reforms sparked angry labour unrest and widespread protests that culminated in a violent clash between police and anti-poverty activists on the front lawn of the provincial legislature in 2000.

"I remember often sitting in that legislature with Jim and we heard the drums beating outside, and they weren't welcoming sounds," said Klees.

"They were the sounds of people who opposed what we were trying to do in terms of bringing fiscal responsibility to this office. Jim was at the forefront of that."

Flaherty, who left provincial politics in 2005, was a plain-spoken man with a great sense of humour, a tough debater — a "clean-up hitter" — who never left anything on the table, Klees said of his one-time leadership rival.

Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, whose opposition to the Common Sense Revolution spurred her entry to provincial politics, described him as a "feisty, articulate spirit in this place."

"Canada has lost a great Canadian," she said.

But Flaherty's real passion as Ontario finance minister was establishing a common securities regulator, which he pursued at the federal level, said O'Toole.

But he had limited success: only Ontario and British Columbia have signed on.

O'Toole said he joined his ailing friend for drinks just a few weeks ago. Flaherty looked "very poor, really terrible," but had a little glint in his eye, leading him to suspect that Flaherty might retire and finally "have some fun."

"It's tragic, just tragic ... to have so much and then to receive so little," he said.

— with files from Keith Leslie