Stigma, Secrecy, and the Senate | By Maggie Danko

Fall is in the air, and along with a new school year comes a new political sitting. As our representatives in Ottawa prepare for another year, a recent announcement with regards to the health of an Alberta senator has made headlines nationally. Joyce Fairbairn, a Liberal senator from Lethbridge, has been declared “mentally incompetent” due to a diagnosis of dementia, and will be taking a leave of absence for the upcoming sitting.

First and foremost, my thoughts and sympathies go out to Senator Fairbairn and her family. Dementia is a devastating diagnosis, and this must be an extremely challenging and trying time for the entire Fairbairn family, just as it is for any family affected by a similar diagnosis in a loved one. Throw in a media circus and members of the general public inquiring about the mental health of Senator Fairbairn, and I can only imagine what a difficult time this family must be having.

However, the public and media have raised a number of challenging questions and issues. While this is a tragic situation for the Senator and her family, it may be the spark to light the fire behind necessary reforms to the Canadian Senate. Let’s face it, while Canadians can appreciate our modern democracy, a privilege that many other global citizens cannot enjoy, our senate is absolutely archaic.

The Canadian senate is composed of members appointed by the Prime Minister, and while they are representative of geographic regions of Canada, they are not chosen by their constituents, and thus are not necessarily representative. The requirements to be a senator were instituted over a hundred years ago when the senate was created. They include criteria such as having to own $4000 in property, being over the age of thirty, and perhaps most importantly, appointment is a LIFE SENTENCE. Like prison. These stipulations have been revised once, in 1965, to change the life sentence to mandatory retirement at age 75. You would think that with the way our society has changed in the last 50 years, senate reforms would occur to reflect these changes.

With Senator Fairbairn’s dementia diagnosis, we are forced to consider whether new criteria should be added to the checklist of what it takes to be a senator. Should there be a clause stating that one must be of sound mind? And what type of responsibility do senators hold, seeing as how their constituents do not elect them? According to news reports, Senator Fairbairn was declared mentally incompetent by her physician in February, yet she continued to attend sittings of the senate, and vote along her party’s lines until June. It was not until the summer that her family announced that she would be on a medical leave for the upcoming year. With two years until her retirement, and a terminal diagnosis, should Senator Fairbairn be mandated to retire, or should she remain on a medical leave until she reaches the age of mandatory requirement?

There is a stipulation that senators on medical leave must still attend one out of every two sessions, but there is presently no course of action for those who do not comply. Historically, when senators have experienced health conditions that significantly impair their ability to serve, they have retired from their seat. Thus it is questionable why Senator Fairbairn has chosen to take a leave of absence, and whether she will retire in the near future. While ultimately this decision does rest with the senator’s power of attorney and designated decision-maker, Canadians should be informed about their senate, and in my humble opinion, a senator who is mentally incompetent should not be able to maintain their seat in this governing body.

Senate reform has been a hot button issue for a number of years and has come and gone periodically on everybody’s radar, so I won’t dwell on that issue for too long. While many Canadians consider themselves to be fairly accepting individuals, there is still a staggering stigma surrounding mental health. To be completely blunt, people are uncomfortable when mental health is mentioned. Telling your friends that your grandfather just had a heart attack can be typical cafeteria conversation, but to confide that your sister has schizophrenia is a completely different story. Physical health and mental health are entirely different kettles of fish, although in reality, it doesn’t matter whether it’s your heart or your brain, an illness is an illness. Yet people are reluctant to talk about mental health. Coming from a nursing background, this stigma and hesitancy around mental health is something I see daily in my practice.

In essence, this news headline is that one of Canada’s senators became ill, continued to attend sittings and vote, and has now decided to take a leave of absence, potentially for the next two years until she reaches the mandatory age of retirement. However, due to the stigma of mental illness, this has become a hot button topic that has Canadians asking questions, but afraid to take a stance. When I first started seeing the media coverage around Senator Fairbairn, I immediately began thinking, “Would this situation be the same if she was diagnosed with terminal cancer or another severe illness?” The answer to this question is quite obviously no. Because Alzheimer’s is a disease affecting the brain and one’s decision-making abilities, the situation becomes far more complicated, and I think it is important that there is healthy debate around whether she should still be able to hold her seat in the senate if she is not mentally able to fulfill the required duties. However, due to the stigma associated with mental health, I am afraid that this discussion has been sheltered in the media.  Perhaps this is for the better; for the sake of Senator Fairbairn and her family’s privacy. However, I still feel that as the people affected by the decisions she makes, Canadians shouldn’t be afraid to talk about mental health. My hope is that while this is an awful situation for one Canadian, perhaps this will ignite the fire that begins the process of senate reform.

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