COMMISSIONER Ted Hughes broke up a legal fight that was spilling over into the inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair Wednesday.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is fighting for more say in how the Southern First Nations Network of Care (the Southern Authority) oversees child welfare services for nearly half the kids in care in Manitoba. On Wednesday, AMC lawyer Jay Funke grilled Elsie Flette, chief executive officer of the Southern Authority, about its board appointment process.
"The safety of Manitoba children is what this is all about," Hughes said, interrupting Funke.
Phoenix was in and out of care from the time she was born in Winnipeg in 2000 until her mother and stepfather tortured and murdered her in Fisher River First Nation in 2005. The provincial inquiry began in September to look into why her death wasn't discovered for nine months, the services that were or were not provided to her and her family, and how the system could be or has been improved.
The legal fight between the Southern Authority and the chiefs began in early 2011. The authority filed a lawsuit to block the appointment of five Manitoba chiefs to its board of directors. Flette suggested in her affidavit that the appointments were political payback for her organization's past decisions. In it, she said she was concerned the chiefs would force the authority to curtail performance reviews of the aboriginal CFS agencies it oversees.
"A hostile takeover of the Southern Authority board to advance a brazenly political agenda is not in the public interest," Flette's affidavit said.
Funke argued Wednesday there's evidence that kids from self-governed communities have better outcomes, and the chiefs need more say in their own community's child welfare system.
Hughes said he doesn't want the authority's fight with the chiefs that's still before the courts to bog down his inquiry.
The $6-million inquiry is already on track to be the most expensive in Manitoba history after experiencing several delays and legal battles of its own.
"Hughes said the inquiry may have to sit night and day to get through all the testimony still to come on time.
On Wednesday, it fell behind schedule again. Instead of hearing from the next witness slated to testify, the whole day was spent cross-examining Flette, who testified Tuesday as well.
She was pressed Wednesday morning by Funke to explain why the Southern Authority hasn't created its own culturally appropriate standards nearly 10 years after devolution.
"Why has the authority not done more to... ensure services are done in a culturally appropriate manner?" Funke asked Flette.
The reason for devolution was to put the care of aboriginal kids back in the hands of aboriginal people who can provide services better suited to their culture, the inquiry heard.
Flette was involved with the implementation of devolution that began in 2003 and concluded in 2005 with the transfer of Winnipeg Child and Family Services files to aboriginal authorities. After devolution, Flette said they had to get the Southern Authority up and running, get adequate resources in place and make sure kids were safe before developing the authority's own standards specific to the culture of the 36 First Nations it serves. The authority applies cultural awareness to the province's foundational standards that it follows, she said.
More than 80 per cent of the staff at the Southern Authority and the agencies it oversees are aboriginal, Flette testified Tuesday. Just 37 per cent of staff at the All Nations Co-ordinated Response Network (ANCR) -- the first point of contact for people in the child welfare system -- are aboriginal, she said.
Flette said she doesn't know how many of the aboriginal staff at ANCR are working on the front lines. The head of ANCR is expected to testify today.