A 30-year-old man with a history of being a victim of violence struggled to keep his emotions in check Wednesday at the inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair as he recalled seeing the child with whom he deeply empathized for the last time.
More than most people, Jeremy Roulette could identify with the little girl in and out of care who was battered by her stepfather Karl "Wes" McKay before McKay and Phoenix's mother killed her in 2005.
"He was rough," said Roulette, a nephew of McKay's, who knew from experience. Roulette was in care at age six when he went to live with McKay and his wife at the time, who had two sons together. Roulette and his foster mom both suffered physical abuse at the hands of McKay until he was 10 and they left McKay.
"He would hurt me in places where people couldn't see it," said Roulette. Sometimes people saw him being hurt by McKay but no one ever did anything about it, said Roulette.
Seeing Phoenix wounded in the back of McKay's car in April 2005 before she went to Fisher River First Nation was déj vu for Roulette, who'd by then grown up and had a child of his own.
"I seen Phoenix in the back seat hidden behind shopping bags. She showed me her head. She took her hat off." She had a large gash on her forehead.
"It looked like someone scratched the skin right off her forehead. It was a big scratch and she was a little girl," said Roulette. "It didn't get medical attention."
That day, Roulette was at his foster mom's house when McKay stopped by to pick up one of his sons and take him to Fisher River. That's where McKay, his girlfriend Samantha Kematch, their newborn baby and Kematch's daughter, Phoenix, moved in April 2005.
"I asked her what happened to her forehead," Roulette said. McKay answered for Phoenix, saying she hurt herself. "He just basically spoke for her and she almost repeated what he said: 'I hurt myself,' " said Roulette. He went inside the house and told his foster mom about the gash Phoenix showed him.
"I figured she would call somebody and tell somebody about it," he told commission counsel Derek Olson. "Did you consider calling somebody?" Olson asked.
"No. I thought she would," answered Roulette, who'd had bad experiences with the police and CFS growing up.
"Do you think Phoenix was trying to tell you something?" Olson asked him.
In June of that year, Phoenix was slain by her mother and McKay but her death wasn't discovered until March 2006. One of McKay's sons, who'd spent the summer there, told his mother in Winnipeg who called police and CFS. Phoenix's remains were discovered at the Fisher River First Nation dump. In 2008, McKay and Kematch were convicted of first-degree murder.
An inquiry into Phoenix's death was announced in 2011 to find out how the little girl in and out of care from the time she was born slipped through the cracks of Manitoba's child-welfare safety net. Winnipeg Child and Family Services was involved with the little girl several times until the agency closed the file on her in March 2005. At Fisher River First Nation, Intertribal Child and Family Services had no file on Phoenix.
Before Phoenix moved to Fisher River, Roulette said he got to know her at the McGee Street apartment where she was living with her stepdad, mom and their new baby. Roulette was a new dad, too, and would stop by their apartment with his baby after visiting his sister, who lived in the same block. Kematch and McKay doted on their baby while Phoenix was usually locked up in the bedroom, Roulette said.
"She was curious," he recalled. "When we came there, she'd try to come out and they'd put her back in the room. Sometimes they put her in there pretty rough -- drag her by the arms."
Roulette said when he was a boy not much older than Phoenix, McKay treated him differently than McKay's own children. He remembered walking on eggshells but never being able to avoid the abuse.
"If I was told to do something and I didn't do it right," McKay made him suffer.