04/17/2014 06:11 EDT | Updated 06/17/2014 05:59 EDT

Raise a Glass to Jim Flaherty's Well-Lived Life

Death is a sniper. It strikes without warning, suddenly pouncing on people before their time. Jim Flaherty left us at 64 years of age, ending a splendid public service career and happy life that should have continued for a few more decades.

Flaherty was Irish lucky. He married Christine Elliott, a wonderful wife and mother, and they had three sons who brought them joy. He had a great career that was, simply put, spectacular and important. Flaherty occupied a front row seat in events that changed the world.

"My thoughts go to his wife, to the boys," International Monetary Fund Managing Director and former finance minister for France Christine Lagarde said this week in Washington. "I'm just really, really sad ... We had a chat in Sydney, and a laugh. I would never have imagined he wouldn't be with us. He was a friend."

The two met at countless G-20 and IMF meetings during the crises that have plagued the world economy since 2008. And her remarks underscore the fact that Flaherty was resilient in the face of discomfort and remained his jolly, forceful self despite the difficulty, and prognosis, of his debilitating disease.

In 2013, a group of us had dinner with Jim and his wife Christine in Ottawa. He moved easily from delivering his budget that day as finance minister to working a restaurant full of people. Both he and Christine are gifted at putting people at ease and listening carefully. Flaherty was always acutely aware of everyone around him and his rejoinders were short and snappy, like he was, delivered with a smile and a twinkle.

He had a very Irish personality, something I'm familiar with: affable yet pugnacious; cheerful but easily moved to tears; fierce but also flexible.

The first time we met was for an interview at Queen's Park and he had me at "hello." He was Treasurer of Ontario, and I was editor of the Financial Post, and before I sat down he pulled out a copy of my most recent book and asked me to autograph it. "Never written a book. Must be hard. A very good read I must say."

That was Flaherty. Never shy and he always said what he meant and meant what he said. A real stand up guy and every inch the scrappy hockey player that catapulted him from being the diminutive center on a team at his Jesuit high school in Lachine, Que. to a full hockey scholarship at one of North America's greatest institutions, Princeton University. He was spotted by a scout and recruited.

"He was great in the corners," recalled L. Ian MacDonald in a recent interview, who was the team's equipment manager (and later a speechwriter for Brian Mulroney). "You didn't get between Jim and the net."

His scholarship required him to maintain good grades and work part-time to defray some expenses. And he got the hat trick: playing well, waiting on tables and graduating cum laude. He then headed to Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto where he drove a cab to make ends meet. He became a lawyer then gravitated into public service. Jim believed in making a difference, and he did so.

"Public service is good for you," he said in a speech years ago. "My high school, Loyola High School in Montreal, has its motto: 'A man for others.' My alma mater maintains its motto of 'Princeton in the nation's service.'"

Politics were like hockey, there were both losses and victories. He finished third in his first run provincially in 1990 then won five years later. In 1997, he joined the cabinet in Mike Harris' Common Sense Revolution, lost a bid to replace him as leader and survived the defeat of Harris' successor, Ernie Eves.

In December 2005, he resigned his provincial seat to run in the upcoming 2006 federal election. Christine won the seat he had held in a by-election and Flaherty went on to barely win his new federal seat. That February, however, he became Minister of Finance in Stephen Harper's new government and served with distinction for eight years. Along the way, he attended meetings to deal with the fact the world was on the brink of a great Depression and held international posts as a Governor of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The Tories ran on a platform of fiscal integrity, tax cuts and debt reduction. They held course until the financial catastrophe of 2008. That's when Harper and Flaherty appropriated $47-billion in stimulus funds and did whatever was needed to help the international community mitigate the effects of the crisis.

The Harper-Flaherty combination has been unbeatable: principled but not doctrinaire, pragmatic but not political. He once said he was not influenced by Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman, but by his mother who believed in working hard and saving for the bad times. It showed.

Flaherty's family wasn't hardscrabble poor, but he had to deliver newspapers for months to earn enough to buy himself a pair of good hockey skates to make the team. It was to prove an investment that allowed him to soar to the very top of the world's political roster, skate with the best and earn many goals and assists.

Tragically, the last two years of his life became a game he couldn't win. He battled, and took a battering, and then, his last budget completed, hung up his skates on March 18. He had plans to go back to the law, take some directorships and look after his health.

"I just talked to him and he sounded very upbeat," a shocked Mike Harris told me this week.

But the sniper was in the arena and able to take out one of our best players. It was, we all agree, far too soon, and for everyone, and his family, more's the pity.

Financial Post


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