Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It is not too much to ask

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Last September, my cousin Brian Sinclair was ignored to death. He checked in at the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre, urgently needing antibiotics and a catheter change. Then he waited in his wheelchair for 34 hours, uncared for until he died.

Brian was homeless, Anishinaabe, and seriously disabled. His life and his death were marked by discrimination, marginalization and inferior treatment.

Since then, the government of Manitoba has shown the Sinclair family that these patterns of discrimination, marginalization, and inferior treatment are alive and well.

The chief medical examiner called an inquest. The inquest concerns every one of us. When someone can be ignored to death in a hospital in Manitoba, something must be very wrong with the health and social system upon which we all depend. Our family is entitled to hear and question all the witnesses. We are entitled to help shed some light on what went so wrong and why, and ensure this never again happens to anyone -- disabled or able, native or non-native.

The inquest judge declared our family an "essential party" that needs its own advocate so that our "full participation can be meaningful and influential." The government, however, refuses to enable such participation, insisting instead on discriminatory double-standards.

The government will spend quite a bit of money on the Sinclair inquest, as it should. But it refuses to distribute public funding in a minimally fair way. Paternalistically, it tells us "You don't really need to participate. It's not essential. Others will look out for your rights."

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's legal team will get an average of $210 per hour per lawyer, from public funds. Yet the government tells the Sinclair family to find a law-firm to represent us for an average of $23 per hour for six months. The government knows that this is not even enough to cover a lawyer's office costs.

Now the government stigmatizes us for opposing this discrimination. For example, it misleadingly boasts that it will contribute to our family's legal representation at $80 per hour. But it imposes so many restrictions that seven or more out of every 10 of our lawyers' necessary hours would be unpaid (for an actual average of $23 per hour).

So the health authority responsible for Brian Sinclair's death and its high-powered legal team get unlimited publicly funded, first-class treatment all the way. (Interestingly, the WRHA and its lawyers are determinedly refusing to disclose any details of inquest legal representation spending.)

In contrast, the native victim's family, which is most motivated to bring out the truth about how a sick and vulnerable man could be fatally ignored for 34 hours, is left begging for charity from lawyers to work at below-cost for six months.

The government claims this is "very fair" and "reasonable." Not so.

Recently, Prof. Paul Chartrand prepared an independent report (www.ignoredtodeathmanitoba.ca) observing that this funding dispute is really about: "Meaningful access to justice for a vulnerable aboriginal victim's family"; "the integrity of an important inquest into a death that has shocked the conscience of ordinary Manitobans"; and "whether there should be two different standards for participation by publicly funded interested parties in this inquest."

Chartrand observed that the government is reducing our family to being a spectator in our own relative's inquest -- if we can participate at all.

The government knows what is minimally necessary to enable the Sinclair family to participate properly. It knows that several judges have said that funding parity is essential for a "fair and proper" inquest. It has funded other victims and their families adequately, for example in the similarly complex and lengthy Taman, Driskell and Sophonow proceedings -- as it should have.

But the government insists that the Sinclair family should get only one-tenth of the average funding provided to victims and their families in these other Manitoba inquests and inquiries, and one-tenth the WRHA's level of inquest participation funding. And it says we should be grateful.

Some fairness. Some way to treat the family of a native, disabled, homeless victim who was killed by institutional neglect.

We have asked the court to do what it can to help us get a minimally fair chance to ask the necessary tough questions about why the system failed Brian (and us all) so badly. We await the court's decision and hope for a measure of justice.

But this government has defied applicable judicial recommendations in the past, which is why we are in this situation. So we pray that human rights groups, advocacy organizations, religious entities, in fact all fair-minded Manitobans, will now stand with us as we attempt to overcome this inferior and discriminatory treatment by a government that would stonewall and sideline us, and prevent us from doing our rightful part to ensure that Brian Sinclair's lonely death was not in vain.

Robert Sinclair works with a Winnipeg agency serving persons with addiction issues. He is spokesman for the Brian Sinclair estate and family.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 26, 2009 A13

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