Cindy Hart

Cindy Hart

  • HIV manager with Health Canada's Protection Unit in Fisher River, 2005
Violet Sinclair

Violet Sinclair

  • Family support worker with Intertribal CFS in Fisher River in 2005
  • Visited McKay's home because of concerns his sons left alone
Madeline Bird

Madeline Bird

  • Social worker with Intertribal CFS in Fisher River in 2005
  • Distant relative of Karl McKay

Specter of blame

Tuesday, April 16

After another unscheduled interruption, the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry groaned to life once again this morning.  As has become the tradition, every time the proceedings ground to a halt, commissioner Ted Hughes jump-started the hearings with feisty words of resolve and his sincerest hope that this would be the last bump in the road.

For Hughes, it is imperative that the inquiry gets down to business. The first phase of proceedings is now dragging well past the point at which Hughes had hoped all three phases of this mammoth inquiry would have concluded.

In March, Hughes ruled that lawyer Kris Saxberg was in a conflict of interest. Saxberg represented some 12 clients, some of whom had opposing points of view on very critical matters in the inquiry.

Following Hughes's decision, some of those clients had to get new lawyers who had to get up to speed.

And so the inquiry resumed, albeit with a few more lawyers in the room and one foot in Fisher River -- the community in which Phoenix Sinclair met her end.

The inquiry heard testimony from two women who work with Intertribal Child & Family Services in Fisher River: Madeline Bird and Violet Sinclair. The women testified they did not know Phoenix Sinclair and were not even aware the little girl had lived in Fisher River until after her death. It is a matter of record that the last child welfare agency to officially deal with Phoenix Sinclair was Winnipeg Child and Family Services.

However, an upcoming witness is expected to tell the commission she warned Intertribal Child and Family Services that Phoenix was not only in Fisher River but might be being abused by Karl McKay. But that is an issue for another day.

Bird and Sinclair may never have dealt directly with Phoenix Sinclair, but they did have dealings with Karl McKay's sons.  In June 2005 -- a month after Phoenix is believed to have been killed -- the two received a tip that McKay's young boys had been left alone in the house while their father was in Ontario.

When the workers arrived at the home they discovered the two boys whom they described as frightened. They boys told the women they had their grandfather's number and had been subsisting on Kraft Dinner. They also indicated they wanted to go home to Winnipeg with their mother.

Then, Violet Sinclair heard a noise in the basement. She descended the dark stairs and walked toward an air mattress leaning against a wall.

She let out a scream when the mattress moved and revealed a 20-year-old man. His name was CJ and he said he was there to babysit the boys. The workers left the boys and CJ behind to make some calls in their office. It turned out there was a warrant out for CJ.
They returned to the McKay home with the RCMP but CJ and the boys had vanished.

Eventually the boys were located and returned to their mother in Winnipeg, but not before Karl McKay called the Intertribal CFS office. According to Sinclair's notes, he saw nothing wrong with leaving the boys in CJ's care. And before hanging up, he told her he would just go back to Winnipeg and get his oldest son as soon as he was back in the province.

Bird, too, had her own run-in with McKay. The social worker is distantly related to McKay and bumped into him at her parents' home one day. It was a brief conversation but Bird's distaste was evident. She described a man who bragged about his job as a trucker and who boasted about hiring prostitutes.

"After that," Bird told the Inquiry, "I tuned him out."

But there was no tuning out the fallout from Phoenix Sinclair's death. Both Bird and Sinclair spoke of how deeply the little girl's death cut through them, their community, and their child welfare unit at Fisher River. They spoke of a specter of blame that haunted them for years afterward.

It lingered, too, after Bird's testimony. As everyone filed out of the room, she sobbed in the embrace of friends and family.

Inside the inquiry

With CBC's Katie Nicholson where an inquiry is trying to figure out how a little girl fell through the cracks.


Photo Gallery