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Phoenix inquiry ends testimony, adjourns

Report due Dec. 15 from 91-day probe

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Commissioner Ted Hughes on Tuesday permanently adjourned the inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair, a probe that turned Manitoba's overwhelmed child-welfare system inside out and put it under the microscope.

The inquiry began in September 2012, and Hughes presided over 91 days of hearings involving 126 witnesses. He has until Dec. 15 to present his final report and guidance to the province on how to protect Manitoba children.

He has his work cut out for him.

Several reports in the months following the 2006 discovery of Phoenix's death have already made many recommendations that have been implemented, the inquiry heard.

Phoenix's remains were discovered at the dump on the Fisher River reserve in March 2006 -- nine months after her mother and the woman's boyfriend abused her so badly she died.

There are now better tools for social workers trying to assess risk, supports for families who need help rather than yanking kids from the home, and better quality assurance checks in place, witnesses testified.

The number of kids in care in Manitoba, however, continues to grow. There are nearly 10,000, and more than 80 per cent are aboriginal. Hughes said he wants to address the overrepresentation of aboriginal children in care and asked parties to the inquiry for help.

Poverty, lack of education, substance abuse and poor housing are all factors that lead to child maltreatment, experts told the inquiry. Social ills passed down through generations stem from colonization and residential schools that stripped aboriginal people of their homes, livelihoods, families and roots, they said. More funding is needed to right the wrongs, but in order to break the cycle, the solutions have to come from within the aboriginal community, the inquiry heard over and over.

But getting consensus from the aboriginal community on what to do won't be easy. On Tuesday, during final submissions, the lawyer for Manitoba's chiefs told Hughes not to give much weight to the recommendations of urban aboriginal agencies.

"They claim to have a mandate to represent aboriginal people in Winnipeg," said Jay Funke, counsel to the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Southern Chiefs Organization. "We dispute that."

The Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg told Hughes on Monday in order to end the cycle of aboriginal children in care, there needs to be more education and establishing an aboriginal education authority and aboriginal school division would be the first step.

"My clients have the mandate of their membership," said Funke. "The Aboriginal Council is not the elected representatives."

Ka Ni Kanichihk Inc., a non-profit agency that helps aboriginal youth in Winnipeg, said there needs to be more services provided by aboriginals for aboriginals. They're part of the community, know how to help the community and want to be partners with the province in providing more services to aboriginal people, counsel Catherine Dunn said earlier.

"Their role in the child-welfare system has to be carefully considered," Funke warned Hughes. "They need to be engaged at the community level and involved -- not controlling the process or equal partners."

"If we cast the net that wide, there are a multitude of community-based organizations... Who else becomes an equal partner? You start to go down a road where the resulting process becomes so unwieldy as to become unmanageable," Funke said.

The lawyer for the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg said he was disheartened suggestions were being diminished by the chiefs because of where ideas were coming from, not their content.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2013 A5

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