Business leaders who sparred with Flaherty laud former minister

Watch video: Jim Flaherty remembered as a finance minister who sometimes butted head with Bay Street. Sean Mallen reports. 

The big business interests Jim Flaherty sometimes found himself at odds with didn’t mince words Thursday upon learning the sad news of the former federal finance minister’s passing.

“Canada has a lost an extraordinary public servant – a man who was respected across our country and around the world,” John Manley, the head of the country’s council of chief executives, said.

Among the former minister’s accomplishments, a “strong and steadfast stewardship” of Canada’s economy during the global financial crisis in 2008-09 stands out, the Canadian Bankers Association said.

Flaherty’s sudden passing in his Ottawa home was peaceful, a family statement issued Thursday afternoon said, but it caught the country’s business leaders off-guard as much as anyone else.

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“We are shocked and deeply saddened,” Terry Campbell, president of the CBA said. “Our condolences go out to his family, friends and colleagues for their loss.”

In a statement, Royal Bank of Canada said Flaherty is “widely considered one of Canada’s greatest finance ministers who helped shepherd us through a significant financial crisis.”

“We are all indebted to him. On a personal level, I will miss working with Jim,” Ed Clark, the head of Toronto-Dominion Bank said. “I greatly admired his passion for improving the lives of Canadians.”

It was some of the country’s big lenders that Flaherty, who was 64, came to loggerheads with at the beginning of last year when he publicly chastised members of the big banks and Manulife Financial for slashing mortgage rates to record low levels – moves that made the minister nervous about a possible housing bubble.

READ MORE: Flaherty pressures Manulife to back off rate cut 

The former Conservative finance minister has faced criticism in some quarters for that intervention. But the move alongside others in recent years to tap the breaks on a red-hot housing sector underscored a pragmatic style Flaherty is now being lauded for.

Flaherty was forced to stray from his conservative leanings during the 2008 financial crisis, spending billions on stimulus programs and measures in a successful attempt to stave off the kind of punishing downturn witnessed elsewhere.

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“His leadership helped Canada to overcome the most serious financial crisis since the 1930s,” Manley said Thursday.

“His astute judgment, thoughtful pragmatism and strength of character inspired confidence during a period of profound uncertainty and economic risk.”

Brian Porter, the chief executive of Scotiabank said the former minister helped to “establish Canada as a global economic leader” following the downturn.

“Through his determination and guidance, Canada made great strides toward securing a better financial future,” Porter said.

For most Canadians, the fact that the economy wasn’t torn asunder unlike so many other countries in those dark moments meant they weren’t thrown out of work, and could continue providing for their families.

Though the unemployment rate hit a recession high of 8.3 per cent, many at the time were calling for the jobless rate to hit 10 per cent. It has ticked steadily lower in the post-recession years and now sits at 6.9 per cent—a post-recession low.

The Conservatives claim they have won back all of the jobs lost during the recession, and then some.

READ MORE: Economy creates 42,900 jobs, jobless rate falls to post-recession low

Perhaps Flaherty’s final achievement has been to set in course the federal government’s return to a balanced budget next year, a plan outlined in March’s budget.

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After plunging Ottawa into a towering $55-billion budgetary deficit at the height of the global downturn, the books at last look poised to return to a surplus in 2015, a feat directly attributable to Flaherty’s guidance of the public purse.

While the economy isn’t exactly roaring – it’s expected to expand by around 2.5 per cent this year – its trajectory appears on stable footing, experts say.

Ottawa remains on guard, but Flaherty was comfortable enough in his last major act as finance minister to stick to his guns, they say, and keep a lid on spending.

“Some people will say the budget is boring,” Flaherty said at the time the budget was announced early last month.

“I consider that a compliment.”

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