Senator Cowan issued a statement Tuesday in the wake of media attention about Fairbairn's upcoming absence due to a diagnosis of dementia. Fairbairn, a Liberal senator from Alberta, has had Alzheimer's for months but kept working and voting in the Senate until it rose for the summer break at the end of June.
"Senator Fairbairn has devoted a good part of her long and distinguished public life to helping persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, Senator Fairbairn has developed health challenges of her own, as a result of which she will be unable to take up her legislative duties when the Senate resumes sitting in late September and will go on sick leave," Cowan said.
"With the help and support of her family, friends and advisers, she is dealing with her situation and in the most appropriate manner."
Cowan's office would not confirm when asked on Monday that Fairbairn has Alzheimer's or whether she was declared mentally incompetent months ago and kept working.
Conservative Senator David Tkachuk, who chairs the committee that deals with administrative matters in the Senate, said he was advised by a family member of Fairbairn's in writing in mid-August that she wouldn't be coming back to work. The letter was also sent to the clerk of the Senate.
He said in an interview Monday that the letter advised him that Fairbairn has dementia of the Alzheimer's type and that she is under care. He also said it is his understanding that Fairbairn was diagnosed as mentally incompetent in February, but he is waiting for confirmation of that.
"I feel very sorry for all of this and what's happened to her. I like Senator Fairbairn very much, I've worked with her on committees, she's been around a long time. I wish her well," said Tkachuk, who heads up the Senate's board of internal economy, budgets and administration committee.
Parliamentarians deserve privacy
Tkachuk said the Senate has never dealt with this kind of situation before and he's seeking medical and legal advice about how to proceed. The committee he chairs is responsible for all financial and administration matters and sets policies and guidelines for the management of the Senate.
Cowan's statement said Fairbairn's health problems should be a private matter.
"Members of Parliament, like everyone else, have health issues from time to time and deserve the same respect for their privacy as other Canadians," he said.
"I am sure that I speak for all of her friends on Parliament Hill and across Canada when I wish her the very best in these trying circumstances."
Fairbairn was appointed to the Senate in 1984, and was a journalist who also worked in the office of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau for many years. Outside of her work on Parliament Hill, Fairbairn has been an advocate for literacy and the Paralympics. In 2003, she was chair of the Canadian Paralympic Foundation.
Fairbairn turns 73 in November. The mandatory retirement age in the Senate is 75. She is one of 40 Liberals who sit in the Senate.