A public inquiry into the death of a five-year-old Manitoba girl must consider whether child-welfare workers involved in the case should be kept anonymous, which the workers' union says is necessary to prevent harm from sensational and inaccurate reporting by the media.

Inquiry commissioner Ted Hughes began hearing arguments on Wednesday from lawyers representing the Manitoba General Employees Union (MGEU), which wants to restrict the media from reporting the names of social and child-welfare workers when hearings begin.


Phoenix Sinclair, seen in this undated photo, was discovered dead in March 2006 on the Fisher River First Nation in Manitoba. ((Family photo))

Five media outlets, including CBC News, oppose the proposed publication ban. Their lawyers are expected to present arguments at the hearing in Winnipeg.

The MGEU, which represents the social and child-welfare workers, argues that publicly naming those employees will harm their ability to serve other children and their families.

MGEU lawyer Garth Smorang took an immediate shot at the media on Wednesday, saying it is "principally interested in the sensationalization of stories and the laying of blame.

"The media is no longer interested in the accuracy or truth of the material it produces," he said.

'The media is no longer interested in the accuracy or truth of the material it produces.' —Garth Smorang, MGEU lawyer 

Smorang picked articles that appeared in local newspapers that he says printed incorrect information or savaged the person involved in the story.

A publication ban on the names and images of social workers should be done for the sake of the witnesses and the children the system is supposed to protect, he said.

Smorang told Hughes the internet has changed the character of the news.

"Gone are the days when you're only infamous until garbage day, because on garbage day the papers get thrown out," he said.

"Now when you're infamous, you're infamous in perpetuity."

Media outlets now operate online forums where the public is allowed to comment, he added, saying the forums are often poorly policed and allow people to make scathing remarks.

Slain child wrapped in plastic

Phoenix was killed on the Fisher River First Nation in June 2005, but it wasn't until March 2006 that her body was found wrapped in plastic and in an unmarked shallow grave.

She died following neglect and repeated abuse by her mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl McKay, both of whom were convicted of first-degree murder in 2008.

Phoenix had spent much of her young life in foster care before Kematch regained custody of her in 2004.

The Phoenix Sinclair inquiry, which was ordered by the province in 2006, aims to examine how Manitoba's child welfare system failed to protect the little girl and why her death went undiscovered for months.

Also seeking a publication ban are three Manitoba child and family service authorities that were involved in Phoenix's care before she died.

The agencies want some of their administration staff to be included, along with the care workers, on the list of employees to be kept anonymous.

Confidential matter

Chris Saxberg, the lawyer representing the three authorities, argued on Wednesday afternoon that whenever governments get involved in the welfare of a child, it is treated as a confidential matter.

That principle should be applied to the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry as well, he said.

Saxberg noted that the protection of privacy is imposed on reports written by Manitoba's children's advocate in hearings to determine whether a child should be removed from his or her parents, as well as in inquests investigating a child's death.

Along with the media outlets, lawyers representing Phoenix's biological father and her foster mother are also against the MGEU's bid to protect the workers' identities.

Three days have been set aside to hear arguments on the publication ban proposal. Hughes is expected to give his decision on July 12.

The inquiry's public hearings, which have been delayed a number of times due to legal issues, are currently scheduled to begin Sept. 5.

Earlier this year, the Manitoba Court of Appeal dismissed the MGEU's bid to quash the inquiry altogether on the grounds of legal validity and jurisdiction.