The Sinclair Project

Brian Sinclair. Carolyn Sinclair. Phoenix Sinclair.

They're all household names to most of us. Not because of how they lived, but how they died. And while their deaths are being probed by everything from criminal investigators to judicial inquiries, it's their lives that most defined who they were.

So we wanted to learn more about these lives. Who were they before they unknowingly became the faces of our greatest social injustices?

How could this have happened to them, and what part of society allowed it to happen?

And what must we do differently to prevent future tragedies like these? To create a future where all Manitobans will be treated as they were created... as equals.

Racism, Residential Schools and the Residual Effects »

Racism, Residential Schools and the Residual Effects;

Joe Keeper did more than just break new ground when he ran in the Olympics exactly 100 years ago.

The Cree First Nation Manitoban also paved the way for his descendants to travel through life with a strong sense of self-worth, despite countless experiences with racism.

"My grandfather was a....kind, strong man who felt it is our duty to remember who we are as Cree people, because we are in our home territory," recalls Tina Keeper, his granddaughter. "Our land, language, culture and family are God given. This was a very strong teaching."

And it was a lesson that's served to guide his loved ones to success, in spite of the racism that was (and is) rampant around them. Joe's son went on to receive the Order of Canada. Granddaughter Tina is a former TV star (North of 60) and Liberal MP (Churchill riding). Her siblings also had successful careers in the arts and became powerful advocates in the field of social justice.

It's an especially poignant lesson too, given Joe Keeper's own experiences. Born at Walker Lake in 1886, he was sent to a residential school in Brandon when he was 13. His time there was short. Within a year, the school principal recognized Joe's talent for running, so he was sent to Winnipeg to join the North End Athletic Club.

But his experience in residential school was universal and potentially devastating, and the statistics bear this out. It's estimated that overall, more than 150,000 Aboriginal, Peoples were forced into residential schools, designed to "aggressively assimilate" them and strip them of their culture. Of those, conservative estimates say at least one in five of them was sexually abused, and at least half were at times physically abused.

No surprise, though Joe Keeper's duration at the school was short, his sense of identity, worth and pride in being an indian were fiercely challenged.

It would have taken an Olympian effort....literally....to hold onto himself. And that's exactly what he did, competing in the 1912 Olympic games....one of a handful of First Nation Canadians throughout history to do so. (He placed fourth in the 10,000 metre race.....a feat that's not been matched by a Canadian athlete to this date).

Four years later he joined the army and went onto be awarded a Military Medal of Bravery for his efforts in WW1.

But its his heroic efforts on the home front that are most cherished by his granddaughter.

"It's funny that I think it is the fact that most of my grandparents did NOT go to residential school that gave me resilience and strong sense of love, self and identity as a Cree woman," Tina says.

Yet "my grandfather who did go to residential school and ran in the 1912 Olympics and served in WW1" was equally responsible, she says. "This is the foundation for a good life, despite the barriers. It gives the strength to seek justice and equity."

Hurting in Silence, Healing in Limbo:

It's what's seen Keeper through a lifetime of racist incidents. Like the times in her teens, growing up in the '70s, when she and her friends had racist slurs thrown their way at all the usual social outings teens get into. Then there were the more insidious incidents, the covert ones, like not being chosen for a school team or given a job because they were "Indian". Incidents all the more hurtful because you can't complain about something you can't prove......and complaints fell on deaf ears, regardless.

"Especially when you're young. You don't have a fight against it, and there really is nowhere to turn," she says. "You cannot go to the police, you cannot go to the principal, you cannot go to any authority that's going to assist you on these issues. You know, whether it's name calling on the field when you're playing sports or whether it's....something that's happened to you, you know this is....really becomes overwhelming."

They're the moments that make one feel invisible, she says, and she quickly relates it to present day. Brian Sinclair....homeless and wheelchair-bound, sitting unnoticed at a hospital waiting room until after he died. Carolyn Sinclair, drug-addicted and in the sex trade, vulnerable and marginalised, the night she met the person who killed her. Or Phoenix Sinclair, lost in the child welfare system until months after she died of the longtime abuse she'd suffered.

"Right....right, yes!" Keeper says emphatically. "The families of Carolyn Sinclair and Brian Sinclair and Phoenix Sinclair, like those, those fights are just so painful and....they reflect something that is absolutely devastating."

That's where the residual influence of residential schools can often be felt. The survivors themselves are not only stripped of their identity, but that void is sometimes filled with conflicting, destructive behaviour that hurts themselves and their own children (Brian Sinclair's alcoholic mother was a residential school survivor. Likewise some of Phoenix Sinclair's predecessors.)

Not only can that mean they're not able to stand tall for their children, but they often don't have the strength of self to stand up for themselves.

Like Tina's aunt. Elderly, sickly and a residential school survivor. Just weeks ago, she took a turn for the worse and called an ambulance.

"The paramedics were so mean to her and so rude to her," Keeper says. "And she was not even allowed to take her purse or her shoes, they made her walk out to the ambulance bare feet in a nightgown and she couldn't make a phone call to her...relatives that she was going in."

But she didn't complain. She couldn't complain.

"And she is the kind of person, because she did go to residential school, and she has been since she was a child....told very clearly and forcefully that 'you have no voice here.'"

Keeper then compares it to an incident she herself experienced with paramedics, when helping another elderly relative get an ambulance, following a brain injury.

"When I was trying to talk to them about, you know, her history, they just literally pushed me out of the way, told me to mind my own business, asked me if I had been drinking alcohol," she recalls. "It's those kind of incidents that stack up."

Resilence for Today and Hope for Tomorrow:

Tina challenged them. Borne, she notes again, from the strength of identity that her Grandfather Joe passed down to her, who managed to survive unscathed by residential school, along with her other grandparents, the ones who escaped that path altogether.

"Because of that, you do have a resilience and strength that I think (otherwise) just gets broken and worn down after numerous generations," she says. "We haven't had the sustained contact, we haven't had the imposition of federal government policies and provincial government policies in our lives that have been devastating repeatedly....and I think that is really a blessing for us."

She is realistic though, about the current climate and though she is strong enough to stand up for herself, she is tired, she admits, of always having to fight the fight. The same fights she fought when she was a teen, she's fought for her two sons, when they were in their teens.

The good news, she says, is that there are definite signs of improvement. When her son's football coach made a racist crack about aboriginals, her son was hurt. She was angry. Bracing for defiance, she complained to the head coach. Instead, to her amazement, she received an apology.

"He said 'oh my God, that is just horrible....that is never going to happen to one of my players, that is completely unacceptable and I will deal with it,'" Tina says. "I was like, elated. I felt this joy.....I thought 'wow, this is what it feels like to have somebody believe you and hear you.'"

It's that shift change in attitude that gives Tina Keeper hope for her descendants, (including brand new granddaughter AA). And its that strength of her grandparents, that gives Tina the power to stand up for them.

  • Carolyn Sinclair
  • Brian Sinclair
  • Phoenix Sinclair

The Sinclair Project: Carolyn Sinclair

Carolyn Sinclair

Carolyn with one of her children. (Family photo)

Each and every day, Jennifer and Rachael Tichborne cry over the death of their best friend since childhood, Carolyn Sinclair.

But each and every day, the two sisters also burst into laughter.....really infectious laughter....when they remember the antics of their youth, growing up just blocks away from Carolyn, in Winnipeg's west end.

"We didn't think about what we wanted to be when we grew up or how many kids we'd have or who we'd marry," Jennifer says, giggling loudly. "Carolyn was all about having fun, she was always happy, that was the real Carolyn."

It's a stark contrast to the Carolyn who is best known to the public, posthumously, as the First Nations, drug addicted sex trade worker who was just 25-years-old and five months pregnant when she went missing last December. And whose body was found near a garbage dumpster weeks later.

They witnessed her descent into drug addiction. And they both tried to pull her out of it, either by caring for her young son when she hit the streets at night... or urging her to get help.

"Not only is it sad but it angers me," Jennifer says. "Because I believe it has a lot to do with the race and everybody, especially (whoever) targetted her, believes she is not missed."

But she is badly missed and it is no surprise. Jennifer and Rachael cannot remember a time when Carolyn was not their best friend. From the time they first met in nursery school, they were virtually inseparable and have the memories to prove it.

Like the time Carolyn's stepdad called them downstairs, threw a jar of pennies in the air, and cheered them on as they giddily clamoured for the rainfall of loose change.

"I was the troublemaker and Carolyn followed"

Or the times they hung out at the play structure at what's now known as the Burton Cummings Community Club, and built little towns in the sandbox. Or the countless Sunday mornings they saw Carolyn march off to Church with her parents. Or the time Jennifer recruited her eager-to-please friend into jamming the doors of their elementary school with Lepage's glue, all to avoid a test. (And yes, they were busted).

Jennifer with friends at the "walk for justice" on May 20th, 2012 which would have been Carolyn's 26th Birthday. (Submitted by friend)

"I was the trouble-maker and Carolyn followed," Jennifer says, and starts laughing again, so hard that she has to stop and start the story again. "I came up with the brilliant idea to take white glue and squeeze it into the locks. We got into a lot of trouble....but she didn't care, she helped me anyways!"

Her laughter subsides, but only long enough to remember another story. Like the fact that Carolyn loved her pet hamster so much, that they'd spend hours building homes for it and playing with it. And when it eventually died, no matter. She'd just get another one and do it all again.

"She had a lot of hamsters," Rachael says, and immediately the laughter starts again. "And they would always have the same name as the one before, which was 'Hammy'."

The sisters are having fun sharing these stories but they're also trying to make a point. Their grief over Carolyn's homicide has an extra bite to it, not only because of what happened.... but why it happened, and how it is perceived.

Tagged as a sex trade worker found in the trash

"When all the headlines read 'Sex trade worker found in trash bag', quoted by the police," Jennifer says. "It's like my sister said before to to one of the sargeants....if she were to go up missing, you wouldn't see somebody put 'Cleaner....found dead'....no, you wouldn't see that on her headline, ever."

Carolyn's 9th grade graduation (Family photo)

And then there's the fact that even though Rachael too, is part Aboriginal, she doesn't look it.

"I think it's because I also look white," she says. "You would see something like 'Mother of one shot and killed and left for dead' or something.....it's very sad."

But the two don't shy away from the struggles Carolyn had, that may have left her more vulnerable. They witnessed her descent into drug addiction. And they both tried to pull her out of it, either by caring for her young son when she hit the streets at night....or urging her to get help.

"I didn't feel comfortable about it," Jennifer says, admitting she was scared for her friend. "Oh yeah. It's mind-boggling that someone you grew up with and were so close with, is trapped in that."

They're relieved, they say, and find comfort in the fact that a suspect, Shawn Lamb, is charged in connection with Carolyn's death.

But it does nothing to fill the void that her death has left behind, and it's only the laughter-filled memories that soften the blow.

"She was an amazing friend and she doesn't deserve to be where she is now," Jennifer says. "And she is loved and missed and she always has been."

  • Carolyn Sinclair
  • Brian Sinclair
  • Phoenix Sinclair

The Sinclair Project: Brian Sinclair

Brian Sinclair

(Family photo)

Brian Sinclair's iconic photograph may tell a thousand words, but it doesn't tell the whole story.

Like the fact that when he was a kid, he loved climbing trees so much that his sister worried he'd fall and break a leg,

Or that he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up. Or that he was so fastidious as a child, he dressed up every Sunday in a shirt and tie, and slicked back his hair with his brother's Brylcreem.

All of those images are a poignant contradiction to the one the public knows him for now....the photo of him sitting in a wheelchair, legless, listless and homeless.

When I look back at him as a teenager, that would fit. He was not demanding. Of all of the students that I had in that program, he would be least likely to be really, like, demanding, in trying to get his needs met. He was much more passive.

—Karl Gompf

"That's not how I remember him, he was a very clean little boy," says his sister, Esther Joyce Grant. "I remember he was eight years old, he acted like he was a grown man....I'd say 'oh, there's Brian all dressed up again....' He always said 'I have to look good, that's just who I am.'"

It's memories like this one that make Esther laugh....and, in between moments of tears, she laughs a lot during a conversation about him.

"Oh, he was so funny,' she says."He was obsessed with his hair, he was obsessed with the Brylcreem."

That was the Brian Lloyd Sinclair she knew. The baby brother who was born in 1963, and raised, along with his two brothers and three sisters, at their family home in Pine Falls.

She remembers other snippets from their past; some of them sweet... like the way Brian loved to help his mother cook and wash the kitchen floors. Or the hours he'd spend exploring at the beach with his closeknit cousins.

His parents separation devastated him

Other memories are painful. Money was tight. Their parents fought. His mother, a residential school survivor, drank to excess. When Brian was 12 or 13, his parents split up. The girls stayed with their mom. Brian was placed into foster care while his father tried to rebuild a life for them in Winnipeg.

"Yeah, he was very devastated over that," Esther says. "And he was very sad.....very devastated."

It was a tough transition for him and not a successful one. By the time he was 14, he was sent to a CFS-run semi-wilderness group home for "troubled" aboriginal teens.

Karl Gompf was his camp instructor. And though that was back in 1977, as soon as Karl saw the photo of Brian, grown up and in a wheelchair, he recognized him immediately. When he learned the details of his death in the hospital emergency waiting room, that too triggered a memory.

"When I look back at him as a teenager, that would fit. He was not demanding," Karl says. "Of all of the students that I had in that program, he would be least likely to be really, like, demanding, in trying to get his needs met. He was much more passive."

In fact, that was exactly why Brian stood out in the program. Though it was specifically geared for especially volatile teens, Brian was the polar opposite.

Brian (middle 2nd row) at Camp Neecheewam when he was 14 years old in 1977. (Karl Gompf)

"He did not stand out as....if you want to call it....a 'troubled teenager', he wasn't aggressive," Karl says. "I cannot remember one instance where I had to reprimand or deal with him."

But life didn't get any easier when Brian was eventually returned to his home. His father suffered a stroke and had to be moved to a nursing home. Brian got into soft drugs. And though he sometimes held small jobs, he didn't often keep them and could barely afford the rooming house where he and and his brother lived.

But he was gentle and he was friendly, his sister says. He joked he was a gypsy and would even, as a lark, dress the part with big beads and a bandanna.

And he was a hero, Esther says. Literally. He once forced his way into a burning suite and pulled two people from the fire to safety.

"My dad told me about that, he was so proud of Brian," Esther says. But little by little, the odds began to stack against him.

Lack of shelter cost him his legs

He managed to beat his addictions, but his health deteriorated. He had trouble breathing and had kidney disease. He had no job and no money.

Then on an especially bitter cold night, in February 2007, his landlord locked him out. He made his way to a nearby Church and asked to come in, warm up and use the bathroom. They refused. The next morning, he was found there frozen and huddled in a fetal position. He was rushed to the hospital. Both feet had severe frostbite. Both his legs were amputated from the knee down.

From that point on, Brian lived on and off the streets, relying on soup kitchens and shelters. Surviving taunts from strangers and even attacks (once a pair of drunken passersby threw bricks at him, just for the fun of it).

And that's the kind of life Brian was living come September of 2008, when he went to the hospital seeking help for a bladder infection....only to die after waiting more than 34 hours.

"When we heard about it, I just about had a nervous breakdown," Esther says. "I just fell on the floor and uh, you know, I just broke down."

Four years later, she is still haunted by it. Her only comfort, she says, comes from Brian himself, who frequently "visits" her when she's having an especially bad day.

"That's when I have this feeling that he's there.....something like a ghost I guess. But you can't see him," she says. "What I think is that he keeps coming back to me (because) he knows I'm helping him."

But Esther says the only thing that will really help them heal is for those responsible for his death....and the system that allowed it to happen, to own up and make amends.

"Otherwise, he'll never rest in peace."

  • Carolyn Sinclair
  • Brian Sinclair
  • Phoenix Sinclair

The Sinclair Project: Phoenix Sinclair

Phoenix Sinclair

(Inquiry photo)

The dream started with a knock on the back door.

And when Phoenix Sinclair's Godmother opened it, she stared right into the face of Phoenix herself.

In this dream, though, Phoenix was a teenager, 13 or so. And she was alive, though acting like she'd just returned from a long trip.

"She said 'hi' and I told her to come in," Kim Edwards says. "Then I told her 'your mother went to jail.....because she killed you.'"

We get so upset when everyone wants to have her as a poster child for violence and domestic abuse and CFS. The nation, really, portrays her as like a little tiny baby, but she was a little girl. She had done some living.

—Kim Edwards

Kim woke up at that point and the dream was over. But, she says, the nightmare remains. Almost worse than that, it's in a state of limbo. One that won't really end until the inquiry into the circumstances around Phoenix's death finally ends.

But since that inquiry's in the midst of yet another delay, so is the family's closure. Kim's comfort therefore comes from remembering the past. The early days of Phoenix Sinclair. Before child welfare workers placed her back in the care of her unfit mother, who ultimately, with her stepfather, was convicted of killing her.

In other words, Kim wants the world to know who Phoenix really was, before she became a cross-Canada symbol of child abuse.

"We get so upset when everyone wants to have her as a poster child for violence and domestic abuse and CFS, " Kim says. "The nation, really, portrays her as like a little tiny baby, but she was a little girl. She had done some living."

(Inquiry photo)

Kim herself first laid eyes on Phoenix when she was a few months old, and Phoenix's father Stephen Sinclair....an old friend of Kim's.....showed up at the doorstep with her. It was a surprise.....Kim didn't even know he had a girlfriend, let alone a new baby.

"I hadn't really seen Steve for a while, I didn't really know about Samantha, " she says. "So when he showed up .... I was like '....you have a baby! Oh, look at her, she's just adorable!'.....and yeah, I immediately fell in love with her."

So much so that within weeks, Phoenix began spending more and more time at Kim's. And when things got really rough at home, Phoenix pretty much lived there.

By the time she was two, she was calling Kim 'Nana Mom', she says. And then she pauses.She remembers something else that's bothered her since Phoenix's death, another public perception, she says, that's flawed.

"To the province I was her foster mom. To me, I was her Godmother, I was the woman who raised her," Kim says. "Point being, is there are no.....I was never her foster mom. So I don't understand why the media called me her foster mom,.....I was mom. I was her mom."

Angry at child and family services

It's a sticking point, but to her, it's about more than just semantics. She makes no bones about the fact that she is angry with Child and Family Services. And though she won't go into significant detail about it....given the pending inquiry....she wants to make it clear that Phoenix didn't live with her because of CFS. Phoenix lived there because Kim and Stephen agreed she needed a loving home. (Court records indicate that Stephen struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, and that child welfare officials were concerned for Phoenix's well-being under his watch).

(Inquiry photo)

"It wasn't CFS who put her in with me. It wasn't her mom. It was her dad. Period," she says. "Even today, this far into it, I got people looking at me....like, they're not believing that you know, she was with me......I was a place of safety."

As if to prove that point, Kim lists the likes and dislikes of this little girl who spent so much time with her.

She liked, for example, the color purple.

"She had this one purple dress that she'd want to wear all the time," Kim says. "If it was dirty, I'd say 'Phoenix, it's dirty,' then she'd want you to wash it. But she wanted to wear this purple dress all the time. And even when she grew out of it, she still tried wearing it."

She loved horses, from the moment she sat on a pony for the first time at Kim's father's farm.

She loved making noise, especially at Kim's house, where she had her pick of guitars, drums and synthesizers at her disposal. And she loved Metallica. Yes. Metallica.

"She was a little person.....she didn't act like other, the way children act," Kim says, laughing. "She would sit there and she would watch a movie like Armageddon. It was one of her favorite things to do, was watch Armageddon with her dad."

She was also so sweet that everyone was eager to please her.

(Inquiry photo)

"She didn't get any 'no's from anybody. Nobody ever told this little girl no....at all," Kim says. "You just couldn't say no to her."

A dream that Phoenix is alive and well

It's a curious observation, given how Phoenix is most identified by the public as a child whose life was marred by gross neglect and brutal abuse. But if Kim sees the irony there, she doesn't let on. Because these are the recollections that get Kim through the days. And especially the nights, when she has that dream of Phoenix alive and well.

"She would have grown up to be open to everyone, to all race, all society," Kim says. "I could picture her being a musician and rockin' out or I could picture her being absolutely anything, if she were allowed to grow up."

  • Carolyn Sinclair
  • Brian Sinclair
  • Phoenix Sinclair

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