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The commission of inquiry into Phoenix Sinclair's death will be much broader in scope than previously thought.
In addition to exploring the circumstances surrounding the child's tragic death and her family's dealings with the child welfare system, the inquiry will also examine how poverty and other socio-economic conditions factored into her death, commission counsel Sherri Walsh said Tuesday.
"It's been made clear to us through the course of our investigations that in order to make recommendations to better protect Manitoba children, the focus of this inquiry needs to extend beyond the strict parameters of the operations of the child welfare system," she said. "The child welfare system alone cannot be expected to address the underlying social conditions which lead children into being in need of protection."
Walsh made the remarks shortly before commissioner Ted Hughes heard arguments on several pre-inquiry motions Tuesday. The inquiry itself is scheduled to begin Sept. 5.
Walsh said the first phase of the inquiry will explore the circumstances surrounding Phoenix's death and what child welfare services were or were not provided to the family.
Phoenix was murdered in June 2005, three months after her child welfare file was closed. She was living with her mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl McKay, at the time of her death.
While staying with Kematch and McKay, Phoenix was frequently confined, assaulted and neglected. She died after a brutal assault in the basement of the family's home on the Fisher River First Nation and her body was found several months later in the community's landfill. Kematch and McKay were convicted of first-degree murder.
A second phase of the inquiry will focus on the child welfare system's response to the tragedy. The commission will examine the half-dozen reports that were subsequently issued and whether child welfare authorities and the provincial government implemented their recommendations.
But now the commission has decided a third and final phase of inquiry will be devoted entirely to the social conditions surrounding the tragedy. Those conditions include poverty, limited economic and employment opportunities, homelessness and substance abuse.
"Many of the roots of these issues can be traced to issues that the First Nations people in our community have faced for decades, relating to racism, colonialism and the residential school system," Walsh said.
In a brief interview afterwards, she said the commission will hear from aboriginal social service agencies such as Ma Mawi and poverty experts such as Winnipeg Harvest's David Northcott.
Part of the commission's mandate is to make recommendations on how to better protect Manitoba children in the future.
"Phoenix and her family were more than just clients of the child welfare system. And everything that we've learned to date... is if you're really going to prevent maltreatment and neglect, you have to look at the underlying social context in which children come into contact with the child welfare system," Walsh said.
Meanwhile, Hughes granted an application Tuesday to make the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Southern Chiefs Organization full parties to certain parts of the inquiry proceedings. It will give the province's aboriginal leadership a greater role in examining the child welfare system's response to Phoenix's death and the underlying societal issues.
Hughes said he would also issue a written ruling next week on whether the commission will turn over some 9,279 pages in transcripts from pre-hearing interviews with dozens of potential inquiry witnesses.
The motion to release the transcripts was made by lawyers representing the province's CFS governing authorities and the Family All Nation Co-ordinated Response Network. They want full transcripts of the interviews, not just the summaries of the conversations provided by the commission's counsel.
Walsh said the commission had assured potential witnesses recordings of the pre-inquiry interviews would not be released. She said all parties had previously accepted receiving summaries from the interviews, which were designed to help the commission "marshal the evidence" at the inquiry.
However, Shawn Scarcello, arguing on behalf of the CFS authorities, said his clients want all relevant documents before the commission to be disclosed. "Once the transcripts were created, we were entitled to them," he told Hughes.
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.