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Building trust out of tragedy

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"Justice has nothing to do with what goes on in a courtroom; Justice is what comes out of a courtroom"

– Clarence Darrow, American lawyer and leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Sure, it’s a widely-used quotation, but it best sums up the predicament Provincial Court Judge Tim Preston finds himself in.

Preston is presiding over the upcoming provincial inquest into the 2008 death of Brian Sinclair at the Health Science Centre’s emergency room.

Sinclair, an aboriginal man who was wheelchair-bound, was found dead after he waited 34 hours without being treated for a bladder infection that required a simple catheter change and antibiotics. His death made national headlines and raised concerns about the quality of ER care and the treatment of aboriginals in the health-care system.

Besides looking into the circumstances leading up to Sinclair’s death, the inquest will also examine the state of emergency room care in Winnipeg.

It’s a tough assignment for Preston, given the politics of health care and the relationship of aboriginal people to white officialdom.

Tougher still is that the media and Sinclair’s family want a camera in the courtroom to show the proceedings on the supper-hour TV news and live-stream it on the Internet.

The Manitoba Nurses Union and Winnipeg Regional Health Authority oppose a camera in the courtroom. They claim it would be an invasion of privacy for witnesses and say that there is nothing in law that gives Preston the power to even consider it.

A provincial inquest is conducted in the confines of court, unlike a public inquiry which is handled by a specially-appointed commissioner outside of court. Public inquiries in the province have long been televised, the earliest in my mind being the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry called by the province in 1988.

Provincial inquests, held under the Fatality Inquiries Act, have never been televised.

In a way the Sinclair inquest can be compared to the inquest into the deaths of 12 babies who had open-heart surgery at Health Sciences Centre in the mid-1990s.

That inquest, before then Associate Provincial Court Judge Murray Sinclair, took nearly three years to conclude hearings. It was not televised. In searching through the old files, I couldn’t find any reference by any electronic media outlet for Sinclair to allow them to put a camera in the courtroom.

What’s changed?

Well, a lot. Over the past 14 years technology and the Internet has not only opened up a brave new world of communication, but has also changed the way in which we think.

And I bet Preston, probably one of the more progressive judges on the bench, knows that.

He’ll give his decision on Friday, but in the minds of many his mind is already made up.

Preston will green-light a pool camera and the two small cameras to capture the inquest for web broadcast.

He’ll set some rules on how they’ll be used, one being the first instance anyone abuses the technology they’ll be unplugged.

Preston knows full well the whole point of the inquest is to not only document what went wrong in the treatment of Sinclair, but to show Manitobans that emergency room care has changed for the better and that it treats every patient equally.

It’s about building trust out of tragedy.

By law, each witness called at the inquest can speak his or her own mind without legal repercussion. The inquest is about making things better, not pointing fingers and laying blame.

While the lawyers in the case were arguing about the merits of the media’s camera request last Friday, I Twittered a few tweets about what was going on.

One reply I got went something to the effect, "What is the logic behind having no cameras!? What are they hiding?"

It’s the same question, in a way, Preston has to address in his decision.

If he says no to the camera request, the response from some will be, "What are you trying to hide?"

And if enough people start asking that question, then the entire purpose of the inquest is down the tubes.

Like I said, we’ve changed a lot in 14 years.

So much so Preston really has no choice in the matter. He’s got to approve the cameras.

And in doing so he’ll be doing our courts a big favour — he’ll bring them up to speed with the rest of us.

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About Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

Larry Kusch has been a journalist for 30 years, the last 20 with the Winnipeg Free Press. His is one of the newspaper's two legislative bureau reporters.

Raised on a Saskatchewan farm, he received an honours journalism degree from Carleton University in 1975.

At the Free Press, Larry has also worked as a general assignment reporter, business reporter, copy editor and assistant city editor.

Bruce Owen joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1990 after four years working in other media.

He's worked in a number of positions at the Freep, including pet columnist, assistant city editor and police reporter. Right now he takes up space at the Manitoba legislature.

Bruce is one of five reporters who won a National Newspaper Award for the paper’s coverage of the 1997 Flood of the Century. He's also the recipient of the 1996 Volunteer Centre of Winnipeg Media Golden Hand Award and the 1995 Canadian Federation of Humane Societies Media Commendation Award.

In a past life Bruce worked at YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens. He has a blog where he and others write about camp and the people who worked and played there.

You can also find Bruce on Twitter where he posts and retweets all sorts of stuff.

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