For years there has been debate about the efficiency and effectiveness of Canada’s unelected Senate. The second house of Parliament was created to act as sober second thought for all the bills passed by the commoners in the House of Commons. The Senate was to be filled with the upper class who were presumably better educated and more well-off.
Stephen Harper promised to reform the Senate, but has failed to do so in the six years he’s been in government. The Official Opposition NDP wants to see the Senate abolished but has not yet had the power to do it.
The legitimacy of the body is up for debate again after Glen McGregor asked some questions and discovered that Liberal Senator Joyce Fairbairn had been working and voting for four months after having been declared legally incompetent because of advanced dementia. According to her niece, Fairbairn was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in February 2012. The top aide to her party’s Senate leader signed a declaration of her incompetence in April of this year. Even after that declaration was signed, Fairbairn attended Senate seatings and voted with her party.
There are no rules set out to prevent a Senator with such a disease from continuing to act and her colleagues have declared that she was still competent and still knew what was going on.
Having experienced Alzheimer’s Disease up close and very personally, I know that sometimes there are no signs at all, and sometimes nothing makes sense.
Fairbairn was nominated for the Senate by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1984 after working in the Prime Minister’s Office. She was a one time member of Cabinet as the Liberal leader in the Senate and served for almost 30 years.
Fairbairn’s colleagues say that they knew she needed to leave her position but didn’t know how to raise the issue with her. Senator Jim Munson told Jennifer Ditchburn from the Canadian Press that it’s not right to just cut someone off when they’re facing something like Alzheimer’s. A spokesperson for the current Liberal Senate Leader, James Cowan, told the Toronto Star that this issue was Fairbairn’s personal affair and had nothing to do with her position.
The fact is that when someone is struck with a disease like Alzheimer’s, the people around them have to start making decisions for them. It’s terrible and it’s hard, but wouldn’t it have been better for Senator Fairbairn to have exited early on her own terms, rather than waiting and becoming a news story like this?
Now the fact that she stayed even after her diagnosis, and voted when she may not have been competent to do so, will all be written in to her story.