Politicians from all parties and former colleagues paid tribute Wednesday morning to Greg Thompson, a six-term federal MP who came out of retirement last year to become a provincial MLA and cabinet minister.
Thompson died of cancer Tuesday at the age of 72. He had been absent from the New Brunswick Legislature earlier this year.
Thompson, a former teacher and businessman, was elected federally six times in the southwest corner of New Brunswick, eventually serving as minister of veterans affairs in the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called Thompson "a real guy" who represented his constituents well after being elected to the House of Commons in 1988.
"I can still see him now in my mind's eye," Mulroney said. "He did it in a very respectful and nice manner. He wasn't aggressive or bullying or anything like that. He was the opposite. He was a gentleman."
Returned to politics last year
Thompson retired as MP for New Brunswick Southwest in 2011, but he returned to politics when he ran provincially last year for the Progressive Conservatives, defeating Liberal incumbent John Ames in Saint Croix.
He was named intergovernmental affairs minister in Premier Blaine Higgs's cabinet.
"He felt, and he was right, that he could bring a lot to our government because he had such depth," Higgs told reporters, praising Thompson's "quiet demeanour, determination to get things done, and not to give up."
The premier said that Thompson appeared to be on the mend about a month ago, but two weeks later his health took a turn for the worse.
Thompson was first elected in the riding of Carleton-Charlotte in 1988, helping Mulroney win a second majority government and ensure passage of the free-trade agreement with the United States.
Mulroney said Thompson's riding on the Canada-U.S. border made him an effective campaigner for the agreement.
"He certainly was aware, perhaps more than some others, of the enormous benefits that free trade could bring to Atlantic Canada."
New Brunswick Justice Minister Andrea Anderson-Mason said she met Thompson as a 12-year-old girl when he came to her family's door during that campaign.
"He's the reason why I am in government today," she said. "I immediately fell in love with politics and government … He was absolutely loved and was one of a kind. They just don't make them like that anymore. He's been my hero, and will continue to be."
Thompson lost in the 1993 election, a vote that saw all but two Progressive Conservative candidates defeated.
But after facing and beating non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, he made a comeback in 1997, one of 20 PC MPs elected that June.
"It was a poetic moment for me because it was a return for him but also the return of the Progressive Conservative party of Canada," said Jean Charest, who led the party in that election.
He said Thompson's previous experience was an asset for a small PC caucus made up mostly of political newcomers.
"We're losing someone of substance and someone who made an outstanding contribution to Canada and to New Brunswick," Charest said.
Former MP John Herron, one of the young PCs elected that year, said Thompson's help was "indispensable" to the rookies.
Thompson held onto the seat in four more elections, as a Progressive Conservative and then as part of the newly merged Conservative Party. He was veterans affairs minister from 2006 to 2010.
"Greg was a tremendous public servant and an exceptional colleague," Harper said in a tweet.
Opponents pay tribute
Many of Thompson's political opponents also paid tribute to him on Wednesday.
Shortly before visiting the Governor General to call an election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that Thompson was "a fair & kind man and a passionate advocate for his community, province, and country. I was sorry to hear of his passing this morning."
"Greg was passionate about public service, and was always fair and kind," said Beauséjour Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc in a tweet.
New Brunswick Green Party Leader David Coon, a former resident of Waweig, said Thompson had been his MP for most of the Tory's tenure in Ottawa.
"He was highly respected and well-liked by his constituents, no matter their political leanings," Coon said in a statement. "It is a sad day for the people of Charlotte County and for all who knew Greg, personally and professionally."
People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin called Thompson "a great man. … He diligently worked for the betterment of his community, this province and the nation serving with dignity and honour throughout his lengthy career."
A book of condolence has been set up at the New Brunswick Legislature, and the provincial flag is at half-mast at government buildings.
Thompson's death reduces the PC minority government's standing in the legislature to 21 seats out of 49, but the Tories won't be at any greater risk of being defeated on votes.
That's because former premier Brian Gallant announced last week he'll be resigning as MLA for Shediac Bay-Dieppe in the coming weeks, dropping his party to 19 seats, excluding Speaker Daniel Guitard.
Higgs will have six months to call byelections once the seats are officially declared vacant. He said he'll probably call them simultaneously but said he hasn't given much thought to when he'll do that.
Higgs also said he'll take on Thompson's role as minister of intergovernmental affairs for the time being.