August 27, 2012 1:51 pm

Alberta senator allowed to vote four months after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s


OTTAWA – The Liberal leadership in the Senate allowed a veteran senator to vote on legislation and spend public dollars for four months after she was diagnosed with dementia and declared legally incompetent.

Sen. Joyce Fairbairn regularly attended Senate sittings and voted along party lines before the Upper Chamber rose for the summer at the end of June.

Fairbairn was diagnosed with dementia of the Alzheimer’s type by her geriatric psychiatrist in February, according to a letter sent to Senate officials by her niece, Patricia McCullagh.

It is unclear when the Liberals knew about the diagnosis, but by April, the top aide to Liberal Senate leader James Cowan had co-signed a declaration that Fairbairn was legally incompetent, according to a letter from McCullagh, obtained by Postmedia News.

McCullagh, Fairbairn’s closest relative, wrote to the Clerk of the Senate Gary O’Brien in August to warn of the senator’s worsening health, copying the letter to Cowan and Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella.

“As you know, Sen. Fairbairn has dementia of the Alzheimer’s type,” McCullagh wrote.

“She has declined significantly over the past year and is no longer able to look after herself, having had 24-hour, full-time care for the past 18 months.”

Story continues below

The letter indicates that Cowan’s chief of staff, Len Kuchar, who as “agent” shares legal responsibility for Sen. Fairbairn’s personal care with McCullagh, co-signed the declaration sometime in April.

Kuchar could not be reached for comment Monday.

As the Ottawa Citizen reported last week, the Liberals said Fairbairn will go on an extended sick leave once the Upper Chamber reconvenes in September. When asked about Fairbairn’s condition in the spring, the party insisted she was doing fine.

Liberal Senate whip Jim Munson last week said that he never doubted Fairbairn knew what she was voting on during the session.

In the months after the declaration of incompetence, Fairbairn voted 12 times in the Senate. She also authorized more than $85,000 in spending, according to the quarterly expense reports her office filed. However, she travelled less between her home and Ottawa, spending less than $4,000 from March until the end of May, rather than the $13,000 in travel spending she averaged over the previous three quarters.

McCullagh said in her letter she spent part of the summer with Fairbairn at her home in Lethbridge, Alta., and found the senator’s awareness and memory had deteriorated over the previous month.

“Sen. Fairbairn has considerable difficulty carrying out any of her duties as senator and will not return to Ottawa for the foreseeable future.”

Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk, who chairs the Senate’s board of internal economy, was also copied on McCullagh’s letter.

Tkachuk says he has asked Cowan’s office for more information and documentation to support the sick leave request. The board has also asked for a legal opinion on Fairbairn’s situation before deciding what, if anything, the Senate should do.

“I’m going to do it with as much sympathy for her case as possible. but respecting the fact that this is a Canadian institution as well,” Tkachuk said. “It’s a tragic circumstance,” Tkachuk added, noting that he had seen his father struggle with Alzheimer’s.

Under Senate rules, a doctor’s note must be produced for a sick leave of more than six days and senators must still attend once every two sessions.

Under new rules set to be adopted this fall, the Senate as a whole can decide to make a seat vacant, triggering a selection and nomination process, if a senator fails to show up for two sessions.

Fairbairn is not scheduled to retire from the Senate until November 2014. It is unclear why she is taking sick leave rather than stepping down, as seriously ill senators have done in the past.

Patients with Alzheimer’s dementia experience memory loss, confusion and impaired cognitive abilities. Although symptoms can come and go, the effects of the disease become progressively more severe over time.

Fairbairn, a former journalist, worked as a communications aide to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. He named her to the Senate in 1984.

Since then, she has focused much of her work on literacy and disability issues.

Report an error


Want to discuss? Please read our Commenting Policy first.