Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Girl's death a homicide: RCMP

Elements of case resemble that of Phoenix Sinclair

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PEGUIS FIRST NATION -- What RCMP are calling a homicide in the death of a 21-month-old girl has many of the hallmarks of the Phoenix Sinclair tragedy.

The talk on this Interlake reserve is the little girl had recently been returned to her parents after having been in the care of a Child and Family Services agency.

And as in the case of five-year-old Phoenix -- whose murder triggered a provincial inquiry -- no one in the child-welfare system was able to say what was going on and what, if any role, they played leading up to her death.

For almost two years, a public inquiry examined the horrific death of Phoenix, who bounced in and out of foster care before she was murdered in 2005.

The chief of Peguis First Nation -- where the girl, a 21-month-old toddler, had been living with her parents -- bristled at the comparison with Phoenix.

Glenn Hudson also acknowledged it took days of RCMP footwork before the investigation ruled the death a homicide.

And there's been very little new in terms of facts since then.

'We don't know if it involves a child who's been returned back to the community, to the family'

-- Peguis Chief Glenn Hudson

"The community's been made aware by the RCMP that the investigation has been stepped up from a suspicious death to a homicide," Hudson said.

As for questions about whether the little girl was in the child-welfare system, there doesn't seem to be any confirmation of that yet, the chief said.

"We'll be made aware by CFS if that is the case. As of right now, we're not aware of that if indeed that is fact," Hudson said Wednesday. "We don't know if it involves a child who's been returned back to the community, to the family."

In the meantime, the investigation continues.

Peguis carried on Wednesday with an annual treaty days powwow that has been going on since Saturday. The combination made for a surreal atmosphere.

Flags flew at half mast outside the band office, within earshot of powwow drums. Across the field from the mall where the band office is located, there were dozens of tents set out and scores of people under the powwow arbour, enjoying the festivities.

Residents said police initially treated the family home like a crime scene, stringing up tape around the property. They noticed it was gone after a day.

Band members also said they'd heard the little girl had been in care and had been returned to her birth parents.

RCMP could only confirm the child was taken "in medical distress" to the nearest hospital about 3 p.m. last Thursday.

The child, whose name was not released, died that evening at Percy E. Moore Hospital in Hodgson. It's a federal facility located a stone's throw from the reserve's boundary on Highway 17.

Several people at the First Nation identified the girls' parents as Vanessa Bushie and Daniel Williams.

By Wednesday, an autopsy had yet to be completed, Manitoba's chief medical examiner, Thambirajah Balachandra, told the Free Press, so the cause of the girl's death wasn't certain.

Nearly a week later there have been no arrests. The chief said the RCMP are updating his office daily. In the meantime, Hudson expressed doubts about the case.

Hudson suggested the RCMP declared the death a homicide possibly to quell rumours swirling on the reserve.

"I know there was a lot of rumour out in the community, and I guess that's the reason the RCMP put out a publication that it was upgraded from a suspicious death to a homicide," Hudson said.

He said he knows the family well, and he isn't sure it was a homicide.

"It could be something that's outside of a homicide... There's been other deaths suspected of being a homicide but at the end of the day it was natural causes. We won't know until the investigation is completed," Hudson said.

At the trailer local residents identified as the home where the little girl lived with her parents, there were few signs of life Wednesday when viewed from the highway. But behind the trailer, on a neighbouring property, a group of people were clearly in mourning.

There were cars parked and individuals gathered under the shade of a tent.

When the media showed up, there was a sudden reaction.

One man in the group jumped behind the wheel of a pickup truck and stopped in the middle of the highway, holding up a line of cars in both directions.

He could be heard yelling at a TV crew setting up in the background.

Minutes later, the same man drove up to a Free Press car on the side of the road on the other side of the trailer. "The family don't want you around here," he said. "They want you to leave... What do I have to do to get you to leave?"

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2014 A4

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