Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Inquiry to hear Phoenix views

Two weeks set for submissions

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The life and death of a little aboriginal girl go back under the public microscope today.

The oft-delayed Phoenix Sinclair inquiry resumes at the Winnipeg Convention Centre, with two weeks scheduled for final submissions.

"This is an opportunity for all the participants to make submissions to the commissioner about two things -- the findings they think he should make and the recommendations they think he should make," Sherri Walsh, counsel to commissioner Ted Hughes, said Friday.

Phoenix was tortured and murdered in 2005 by her mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl Wesley McKay, at Fisher River First Nation. She was born in Winnipeg in 2000 and was in and out of Child and Family Services care all her short life.

The province appointed Hughes in March 2011 to inquire into the circumstances surrounding Phoenix's death and the child-welfare services provided or not provided to her and her family, any other circumstances directly related to Phoenix's death, and why her death remained undiscovered until 2006.

'This is the parties' opportunity to make submissions about what the final report should say... '

-- Sherri Walsh, counsel to commissioner Ted Hughes

Hughes' final report is to include recommendations to better protect Manitoba children. It is due Dec. 15 -- nearly two years after his original deadline, March 30, 2012.

The inquiry was delayed several times before and after it began by legal challenges from the child-welfare agencies, the union that represents social workers and aboriginal leaders. The public hearing began in September and concluded in June with 126 witnesses testifying during 85 days.

The final bill for the inquiry is expected to run around $9 million.

The final submissions are scheduled to run less than two weeks.

"This is the parties' opportunity to make submissions about what the final report should say with respect to the findings and the recommendations," Walsh said.

First up will be two people who loved Phoenix.

Her biological dad, Steve Sinclair, will be there. He struggled as a single parent after Kematch left him with one-year-old Phoenix and their newborn baby, who died of a respiratory illness a short time later.

Phoenix spent much of her early years in the unofficial care of Sinclair's friends, Kim Edwards and Rohan Stephenson. They testified they mistrusted Child and Family Services and avoided contact with social workers.

When the couple split up, Phoenix was left with Stephenson. With no legal custody of the little girl, he let Kematch take Phoenix when she showed up at the house one day in 2004.

Edwards, who's been camped out on the grounds of the legislature for nearly 60 days demanding a national inquiry into aboriginal child welfare, plans to read a personal impact statement today, Walsh said.

Jeff Gindin, the lawyer for Edwards and Stephenson, said Friday their final submission looks at what went wrong and examines the steps taken to fix the child-welfare system after Phoenix's death came to light.

In the decade that followed Phoenix's birth, the number of kids in care more than doubled. There are nearly 10,000 children in care in Manitoba, and more than 80 per cent are aboriginal. Government funding for child welfare has increased dramatically.

Gindin said they'll make 47 recommendations to Hughes and have an opportunity for rebuttal at the end of final submissions.

Hughes will be able to ask questions about all the final submissions, which the commission has already received in writing, Walsh said.

"The parties have put a tremendous amount of effort into suggesting recommendations," she said.

"In the end, it has been a very collaborative process and I'm very grateful for that."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 22, 2013 A10

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