Tribute to the late Honourable Joyce Fairbairn, P.C., C.M.

By: The Hon. Jane Cordy

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Parliament, Ottawa

Hon. Jane Cordy: Honourable senators, I would like to take a few moments to remember my dear friend Joyce Fairbairn, who passed away on March 29. Journalist, trusted adviser and legislative assistant to Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, member of cabinet as Senate government leader, regional minister for Alberta, Minister with Special Responsibility for Literacy, chair of the Paralympic Foundation of Canada and honorary Kainai Chief of the Blackfoot Confederacy. These are just some of the highlights of a remarkable career.

In her own words, Joyce came to the Senate:

. . . to work . . . to provide a voice that connects Ottawa and Alberta, that connects their interests and tries to explain them to each other . . .

She believed that people truly mattered. Almost every weekend, even while in cabinet and even though her husband, Michael Gillan, lived in Ottawa, she would travel to her hometown of Lethbridge to meet with people and participate in local events.

Though an avowed Liberal partisan, she said:

. . . if you are working on the ground at the community level you are working with issues that concern not just one political party but everybody. . . . You park your partisan affiliation on the sidelines and get out and work on the issue.

It is fitting that the Lethbridge Conservative member of the House of Commons would refer to her warmly in public as “our senator” because that is who she was.

The people of Lethbridge mattered to Joyce. And because of her constant presence and attention, they knew it. Those people included the Indigenous community, to whose aspirations she was particularly sensitive.

Senator Fairbairn said:

If there is a black mark against this country, it is the treatment of aboriginal people . . . It is absolutely ridiculous to say that Canada was settled by two founding races. It was not. As my aboriginal friends will say, they had a very generous immigration policy.

One of Joyce’s proudest achievements in the Senate was successfully fighting for the establishment of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples. She believed our chamber had:

a real role to play in providing a forum for wide ranging discussions on aboriginal concerns and the fundamental position of the aboriginal people in Canada today . . .

She was one of the founding members of that committee in 1989, and continued to serve on it for many years.

When, for health reasons, Joyce chose early retirement from the Senate in 2013, she was welcomed home by the people of southwestern Alberta. In 2015, she was invested into the Order of Canada, and in 2018, the Senator Joyce Fairbairn Middle School opened in Lethbridge, honouring her work in literacy and in her community.

Despite all her accomplishments throughout her life, what I will remember most is Joyce’s kindness because it is how we treat people that is remembered best.

Though we will all miss Joyce, she will be missed most by her niece, Patricia and her partner Martin, and her two great-nieces, Jessica and Natalie. They provided Joyce the safe refuge of family that all those in public life need, especially after her life partner died in 2002. To them I extend my sincerest condolences. Thank you.


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