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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Former Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, 64, who steered Canada through the global financial crisis and then nearly eliminated the huge budget deficits he had run up in the process, died on Thursday just weeks after resigning.
His family said he passed away peacefully in Ottawa, but did not give a cause of death. An unnamed source close to the family told CBC television he had suffered a massive heart attack.
Canada's House of Commons and the Ontario provincial legislature - where Flaherty had served as finance minister before shifting to federal politics, and where his wife still serves - suspended their sessions. The flag flew at half-mast over Parliament.
"Today is a very sad day for me, for our government and for all of our country," Prime Minister Stephen Harper, his voice quaking, said of the friend who had stood at his side since the Conservatives took power in 2006.
"Jim will be sorely missed, not only by his friends on both sides of the House ... but he will also be missed by the countless thousands of Canadians that he devoted himself to and whom he helped during his long and successful career in public life."
Federal opposition New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair choked back tears as he told reporters outside the House of Commons: "Jim Flaherty was an extremely dedicated public servant and he will greatly missed by all of us."
Flaherty had been suffering acutely from a rare skin disease, but at the time of his resignation in March he said that his decision had nothing to do with his health.
Flaherty was Canada's third longest serving finance minister. A tax-cutting Conservative, he left the government on track to balance its books by 2015 after running up the largest deficit in history in nominal terms in his fight against the 2008-09 recession.
He also intervened several times to cool Canada booming housing market, hoping to avoid a bubble that could burst and cause another recession.
"He's remembered as one of the longer serving - and, I would argue, one of the better - finance ministers we've had," said Royal Bank of Canada chief economist Craig Wright. "He had a very important portfolio through very uncertain times, and I think, with the clarity of hindsight, he did a phenomenal job in managing it."
The father of triplets, one of whom is disabled, Flaherty also brought in tax-sheltered Registered Disability Savings Plans for those with disabilities.
He was replaced on March 19 by then-Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who is currently in Washington for a meeting of international finance officials. Oliver canceled interviews he had scheduled on Thursday.
Flaherty had planned to take some time off after the grueling schedule required of a Group of Seven finance minister, and was expected to eventually take a role in the private sector. He was the doyen of the G7 finance ministers when he stepped down.
Stephen Poloz, whom Flaherty appointed as governor of the Bank of Canada, said Flaherty left "an important legacy of fiscal responsibility and public service, and I admired him greatly."
Flaherty had also stood by family friend Toronto Mayor Rob Ford long after many politicians had deserted Ford after he admitted smoking crack.
Ford tweeted: "Devastated to hear news of my friend Jim Flaherty passing... The Ford family is heart broken."
Additional reporting by Leah Schnurr and Cameron French in Toronto; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson, Bernadette Baum, Mohammad Zargham and Peter Galloway