By Stuart Mann
In addition to looking after Canada’s finances, former finance minister Jim Flaherty helped to save his local church.
When Mr. Flaherty was a churchwarden at All Saints, Whitby, from 1992 to 1996, he and the other churchwarden, the late Ross Johnson, took out an extensive insurance policy for the parish. When the church was gutted by a fire in 2009, the coverage helped the congregation rebuild and stay out of debt.
“It was a brilliant decision,” said Eleanor Stevenson, the current churchwarden and a long-time member of All Saints. “I think the church would have had to be completely torn down without it. It was a very good policy and we were well protected.”
It was also during Mr. Flaherty’s term as churchwarden that the church installed an accessible wheelchair lift, capable of taking people from street level up to the church hall. “He championed the lift long before it became mandatory for buildings,” said Ms. Stevenson. “He was so interested in enabling people with disabilities.”
Like many in the congregation, she remembered Mr. Flaherty with fondness. “He was funny, low-key in his worship and witty,” she said. “He was a member of the congregation and most of us treated him as such.”
The Rev. Stephen Vail, who became the incumbent of All Saints last year, echoed her words. “I only met him once, at Christmas Eve this past year, and I was a little intimidated,” he said. “Everyone at All Saints was quite proud of their connection to the finance minister, but the man I met was nice, genuine and humble.”
The Very Rev. Kenneth Davis, who was the incumbent of All Saints from 1998 to 2010, recalled Mr. Flaherty attending the 8 a.m. Sunday services when he was home from Ottawa. “Any time he was home, he was in church,” he said. “He wanted to be just one of the congregation. He didn’t want to be singled out, and I think that was a real blessing for him. He could just come to church and be Jim.
“We sometimes talked at the back of the church about his vocation as a husband and a father and a public servant and a Christian,” he said. “I know that all of those were hugely important to him. He was a man of integrity and somebody who believed what he said on Sunday morning and lived it out in public life.”
Mr. Flaherty was honoured with a state funeral at St. James Cathedral in Toronto on April 16. He died of a heart attack in Ottawa on April 10, less than a month after resigning from cabinet. He was 64. He was the federal finance minister from 2006 to 2014 and Ontario’s finance minister from 2001 to 2002.
The state funeral was attended by more than 1,500 people, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. Many wore green ties or scarves in honour of Mr. Flaherty’s Irish heritage. The streets around the cathedral were closed to traffic and many sat in an enclosure on the church grounds, watching the service on large screens.
A bell tolled mournfully and a bagpiper played as eight Mounties carried Mr. Flaherty’s flag-draped coffin into the cathedral and up to the front of the church. The columns inside the cathedral were lit with green light at the beginning and end of the service.
Mr. Harper praised his long-time finance minister for steering the economy through the global recession of 2008 and 2009 and working hard to get the country on a sound financial footing in the years afterward. “It is his legacy,” he said, adding that he thought Mr. Flaherty had been the best finance minister in Canada’s history. He said his decision to appoint Mr. Flaherty as finance minister “had been one of the best political decisions of my career, one of the most important for this government and one of the most meaningful ever for this country.”
In a moving tribute, Mr. Flaherty’s widow, Christine Elliott, and the couple’s three sons spoke of him as a loving husband and father who put his family first. Ms. Elliott, who is the member of provincial parliament for Whitby-Oshawa, said her husband was a proud Canadian who entered public life to make a difference in people’s lives. “He wanted to make sure that everyone, regardless of their varying abilities, had the chance to live happy lives of purpose and dignity,” she said. “Inclusion in every respect was his ultimate goal, and he worked hard in both his public and private life to achieve it.”
Mr. Flaherty and Ms. Elliott were instrumental in creating the Abilities Centre, a fully accessible recreational and community facility in Whitby. The centre’s mission is to “enrich the quality of life for people of all ages and abilities through an inclusive environment.” Their son John has a learning disability.
A tireless advocate on behalf of disabled people, Mr. Flaherty was a supporter of the Special Olympics and many other initiatives that helped integrate disabled people into the workplace and everyday life. As federal finance minister, he introduced the Registered Disability Savings Plan, which helps parents of special-needs children put savings aside to care for their kids after the mother and father die.
In his homily, the Very Rev. Douglas Stoute, rector of St. James Cathedral and dean of Toronto, said Mr. Flaherty’s deep faith influenced his actions. “Jim Flaherty knew about unfairness. He knew life could be unfair and he knew systems could be unfair. As a man of faith, he used that awareness to inform and energize his service to the public.”
Dean Stoute spoke about Mr. Flaherty’s Roman Catholic upbringing in Lachine, Quebec, and how he had found a spiritual home at All Saints, Whitby, where Mr. Flaherty and Ms. Elliott were married in 1986. “His faith sustained him, informed his policies and carried him through the sacrifices that he had to make in the service of our province, our country and the wider world.”
Archbishop Colin Johnson, who presided at the two-hour service, offered words of hope to the Flaherty family, to those who attended the funeral and the many who watched on television. “St. Paul says to us that we are not to weep as those without hope,” he said. “Amidst grief, we have the comfort that God is present with us. Easter is God’s last word, not Good Friday.”
Watch full coverage of the state funeral on the CBC.