OTTAWA - Friends and colleagues of a Liberal senator diagnosed with Alzheimer's are calling on critics to treat her with dignity as she goes on sick leave — and defending her decision to stay on as long as she did in the Upper Chamber.
Joyce Fairbairn, 73, will not return to the Senate when it resumes in the fall. Her departure had long been expected around Parliament Hill, but friends, family and colleagues have been grappling with the delicate question of exactly how and when to make it happen.
"You just don't cut someone off...it's just not ethically or morally right," said Sen. Jim Munson, a longtime friend and colleague.
"What's happening with Joyce, I find — like others with Alzheimer's — that she deserves better."
Despite a legal declaration of incompetence in February, Fairbairn herself had insisted on staying rather than moving back to her hometown of Lethbridge, Alta. The Hill was her comfort zone — she had worked there for nearly 50 years, with stints as a reporter, as an assistant to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and as leader of the government in the Senate.
Fairbairn is a widow; she has a niece living in Africa who has responsibility for her. A friend from Lethbridge and her staff had been helping her manage her day-to-day life.
The situation has raised questions about the appropriateness of someone in her condition being allowed to continue voting on federal legislation and spending public funds.
"It'd be no more different than losing your driver's license because you're not competent anymore, but put somebody else in the driver's seat," one caller to Dave Rutherford's Alberta-based radio show said Monday.
Munson, the Liberal whip in the Senate, said he has no doubt Fairbairn was able to grasp the content of legislation and understand what she was voting on. He takes issue with the suggestion that the party deliberately kept her working to somehow save her spot in the Senate.
"From my perspective, with the Conservative majority, one vote would not make a difference, but Senator Fairbairn's vote made a difference to me," Munson said. "She was well briefed, ready to vote, and knew what she was doing."
In May, Fairbairn led an after-hours guided tour of the Parliament Buildings for Lethbridge Regional Police Chief Tom McKenzie, a long-time friend from the city.
"Did we see some signs of the dementia? Yes, and it was sad to see her ask us questions a couple of times, being a bit confused, and yet when we talked about issues and she talked about back home, she knew what she was talking about," said McKenzie.
"She was well informed and we discussed a few things about certain bills and certain things that were happening."
Fairbairn seems to have declined over the summer, McKenzie said.
"There was a movement afoot to gently ease her out, and I think that's just good respect for people that we need in our society these days, and a little less political beating and a little more empathy and respect and caring for people."
Fairbairn's situation has highlighted one faced by untold tens of thousands currently in the workforce. Dementia affects a half-million Canadians, and is expected to afflict 1.1 million by 2038.
Mary Schulz, director of education for the Alzheimer Society of Canada, said the disease affects different abilities at different junctures.
"You can be competent in one area and not competent in another, so you may be competent to decide what you're going to have for dinner, but less competent to decide how to manage the finances," said Schulz.
"It's complex, it's fluctuating, and it's not black and white by any stretch of the imagination."
In the case of Fairbairn, her friends point out how difficult it is for her to leave public life. She had a separate office in Lethbridge where she met with citizens to discuss their issues, and was a strong supporter of southern Alberta.
Fairbairn is also a longtime advocate for literacy and adult education. Former Liberal caucus colleague Don Boudria recalls that she was always banging the drum on upgrading skills and learning.
"She devoted her life to making sure others could learn, and what's the one thing she can't do right now? She can no longer learn," Boudria said.
"Isn't that sad?"
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