Should Liberal Senator Joyce Fairbairn have to resign?

The full pension Joyce Fairbairn would receive if she resigned is roughly the same as the disability pay she receives now. But the Alberta Senator doesn't want to give up her seat, and she's been attending events in Alberta this summer.

Spokesman for Senate Opposition Leader says Alberta Senator appointed in 1984 doesn't want to leave

It's a question Conservative Senator David Tkachuk asks: why doesn't Liberal Senator Joyce Fairbairn just retire?

Tkachuk points out that she's been a senator for over 25 years and is eligible for a full pension worth 75 per cent of her salary, which he says would be the same as disability pay.

But he isn't sure whether Fairbairn, who is nearly 73 and suffering from Alzheimer's disease, has the mental capability to make the decision to resign.

"All we got was a letter saying she's not coming back," he says. 

The letter was from Fairbairn's niece, who also informed the Senate that her aunt had been declared mentally incompetent by a geriatric physician in February, although no copy of the declaration was provided.

But Fairbairn is resisting resigning, says Marc Roy, a spokesman for Senator Jim Cowan, the Opposition Leader in the Senate. "The next step will be determined by the evolution of Fairbairn's medical condition."

Senator Joyce Fairbairn, seen here second from left with her Alberta caucus colleagues, doesn't want to resign her seat, according to a spokesman for the Liberal Opposition Leader in the Senate. (Senate of Canada website)

Fairbairn was at the "Whoop Up Days" parade in her hometown of Lethbridge, Alta., just a week ago and has been at other public events this summer. Fairbairn is aware that she won't be going back to Ottawa, Roy says, but believes she can still represent the people of Alberta.

Mary Shultz of the Alzheimer's Society of Ontario says that being declared mentally incompetent doesn't necessarily mean "global incompetence." The ability to perform tasks can fluctuate. 

"Dementia is a brain disease," Shultz says. "You're simply not going to be able to interpret the world the way you did before. So if I'm diagnosed with dementia and say I'm going to work until my dying breath, it may be the disease and it may be that I honestly don't see the problem, because I think I'm just fine."

As chair of the Senate's Board of Internal Economy, which governs the Senate, Tkachuk has asked for a copy of the declaration on Fairbairn's medical condition. Tkachuk says the issue is not partisan politics but whether Fairbairn is being treated properly.

Alberta Senate nominees waiting in wings

Callers to a radio show last week, where Tkachuk volunteered the news of Fairbairn's designation of mental incompetence, accused the Liberals of trying to put a lock on the Senate seat, so that Prime Minister Stephen Harper couldn't appoint a Conservative senator to take Fairbairn's place.

But Fairbairn will have to retire fairly soon, when she turns 75. Under Harper’s own fixed election law, voters won’t go to the polls until 2015, giving Harper almost a year to fill the seat with another Albertan.

Alberta has three elected senators-in-waiting who must be eyeing Fairbairn's seat with some impatience. Harper has promised that if provinces elect senators, he will appoint them once seats open up. 

Since the Conservatives now have a majority in the Senate, Fairbairn's vote – or lack of it – can't hold up government legislation.

Tkachuk admits that the Senate has no policies about how to deal with a member who is mentally unfit to attend sessions. But he intends to pursue the matter.

The Board of Internal Economy issued this statement: "The Internal Economy Committee will be discussing the appropriate response to this most sensitive of personal situations, while keeping the public interest in mind as the foremost priority."