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Over a thousand pay respects to Jim Flaherty

Over a thousand pay respects to Jim FlahertyRCMP officers stand next to Jim Flaherty's casket during visitation at the Abilities Centre in Whitby, Ont., on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

WHITBY, Ont. - More than a thousand dignitaries and citizens lined up Tuesday to pay respects to Jim Flaherty, the former finance minister whose unexpected death last week shocked many across the country.

As Irish ditties played softly over speakers, mourners filed into a low-lit room, where Flaherty's casket lay between two Mounties in ceremonial dress, his widow and triplet sons on one side.

John Ascott was among those arriving early to sign a book of condolences downstairs.

"He made a great sacrifice for this country and I was deeply saddened by his passing and shocked," Ascott said.

"It was the least I could do to come out here and pay my condolences to his family and honour his service to Canada."

First to greet Christine Elliott as she stood near the Maple Leaf-covered casket of her late husband was Ontario Lt.-Gov. David Onley.

Former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, who now runs the Bank of England, was also among early VIP visitors as strains of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" seeped across the room.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrived late afternoon for a private viewing, as hundreds more people lined up for a second visitation.

Harper, who has expressed personal sorrow at Flaherty's death, used a back entrance and did not speak to the media.

It took several hours for all of those who wanted to pay their respects — well over one thousand of them — to do so.

Flaherty, 64, died last Thursday of a suspected heart attack, less than a month after resigning from his long-running finance post in cabinet.

The visitation — which preceded a state funeral at St. James Cathedral in downtown Toronto on Wednesday — was held in Flaherty's Whitby riding at the Abilities Centre that also caters to the disabled.

The former federal and provincial finance minister and Elliott, a Progressive Conservative member of the Ontario legislature, were strong supporters of the centre.

In Flaherty's honour, the country's five largest banks pledged a combined $1 million to the facility.

"In addition to his tremendous contributions to Canada's economic well-being, Flaherty was a tireless champion of people living with disabilities," they said in a statement.

"He showed his support through several decisions as finance minister, gave his time to associated causes, and encouraged a more inclusive society through his actions and his words."

As they passed silently by, some laid a hand on the casket and shed a tear. Others embraced Elliott, who managed a smile for the well-wishers.

Dismay over the death of the diminutive politician, known for his fierce partisanship as well as his impish humour, cut across partisan lines amid debate about his legacy as finance minister.

But for those in his riding, Flaherty was responsive to their concerns, said William Fisher, one of the many visitors from the area.

"I'm sorry to see him go because he did a really good job," Fisher said. "If you had a problem, he'd answer your letter."

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, a Flaherty family friend, was among those attending the visitation.

Harper, New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau were expected to attend Wednesday's state funeral — the first such honour since one for former NDP leader Jack Layton in 2011.

Several members of the Conservative cabinet were also expected to be on hand.

Flags have been flying at half-mast on Parliament Hill since Flaherty's death and Canadians have been signing an online book of condolences.

"He's missed," mourner Mario Cicci said simply.

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