Joyce Fairbairn announces retirement from Senate

After 27 years in the Senate, prominent Alberta Liberal Joyce Fairbairn has indicated she will resign in January, almost two years before she would be obliged to retire at 75.

The former journalist, aide to prime minister Pierre Trudeau, government House leader in the Senate and Senate agriculture committee chair and stalwart has been on sick leave since August as she struggles with Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition to promotion of the agricultural industry in her native southeastern Alberta area around Lethbridge and her years on the Senate agriculture committee where she once served as chair, Fairbairn also has been an advocate for literacy and a promoter of the Paralympics.

She was a founding member of the Senate committee on aboriginal peoples and in 1990 was honoured by the Blood Nation with the name Morning Bird Woman.

She has been a member of the University of Lethbridge senate.

For several years, Fairbairn has appeared frail but she was a regular attendee at Senate agriculture committee meetings and at Senate votes until the summer.

Fairbairn was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s earlier this year.

In a Senate speech in 1990, she spoke about her mother’s decline from the same disease.

“When that diagnosis was made, she was quickly losing many of her cognitive faculties including speech,” she said. “It just went away. Both she and (caregivers) taught me a great deal about coming to grips with something that I could neither see nor hear.”

Fairbairn, a Lethbridge native, was a fierce defender of Alberta’s sugar beet industry.

She was appointed to the Senate in June 1984 by then-Pierre Trudeau, was a key player in the Liberal 1993 election victory and was rewarded by then-prime minister Jean Chrétien with an appointment as the first female government House leader in the Senate.

Fairbairn’s retirement opens up a Senate seat that prime minister Stephen Harper will fill with a Conservative, tightening his government’s grip on the Upper Chamber that he has vowed to reform.