Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ill senator's extended tenure defended

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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 former 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 licence 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 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 Sen. Fairbairn's vote made a difference to me," Munson said. "She was well-briefed, ready to vote and knew what she was doing."

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.

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 29, 2012 A6

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