Phoenix Sinclair is finally getting a proper funeral service and burial on the day she would have celebrated her ninth birthday.
The 10 a.m. service on Thursday was held at the Indian and Metis Friendship Centre in Winnipeg, followed by an interment at Brookside Cemetery. The funeral, which was attended by hundreds of people, was open to the public. Family members asked for privacy during the interment.
During the service, Sinclair's biological father, Steve Sinclair, laid a single red rose on the tiny, white casket containing his daughter's remains at the front of the room.
She was compared to a rose just beginning to open with tender soft petals. Like a rose, her life was cut short, the pastor leading the service said.
Sinclair was killed nearly four years ago in the basement of a home on the Fisher River First Nation. She was then wrapped in plastic and buried in a shallow, unmarked grave near the garbage dump of the reserve, about 150 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
In December, Sinclair's mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl Wesley McKay, were sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder. They are appealing, but agreed to release Sinclair's remains, which had been locked up as evidence.
"That couldn't be done until the verdict was rendered," said lawyer Sarah Inness, who represented Kematch during the trial.
Sinclair had been in and out of foster care for most of her life until Kematch regained custody about a year before the girl's death in June 2005.
A child welfare worker checked on the family in early 2005 but didn't see Sinclair during the visit, and no one ever followed up on the case.
Suffered beatings, broken bones
No one outside Sinclair's immediate family knew she was missing until RCMP received a tip the following year. One of McKay's teenage sons told authorities about the abuse of Sinclair he had witnessed.
Her body was found in March 2006, after police laid charges against Kematch and McKay. McKay later showed RCMP the burial site.
During the trial in 2008, the court heard Kematch and McKay routinely beat Sinclair with their fists, feet and metal bars, and forced her to eat her own vomit. Sinclair was also choked until she passed out and was shot with a pellet gun.
The court was also told she had broken bones throughout her body when she died.
On Thursday, however, Sinclair was remembered as a happy girl who loved to laugh and play games.
This is not the last chapter in Sinclair's story. Her death will be the subject of a public inquiry into Manitoba's child welfare system. It is expected to begin sometime this year.
But Steve Sinclair said he wanted the emphasis Thursday to be on hope.
Review of child-welfare system
Shortly after Sinclair's death came to light, then Family Services Minister Christine Melnick launched two reviews of the child-welfare system, along with a "special case review" of the circumstances leading to the girl's death.
The reviews were chaired by Children's Advocate Billie Schibler, the provincial ombudsman and two external parties.
The first, chaired by Schibler and James Newton, head of psychology at the Manitoba Adolescent Treatment Centre, looked at the deaths of 99 children who were in care between 2004 and 2006.
Their report looked at 18 child and youth homicides between January 2003 and March 2006. Of those cases, 40 per cent of the victims were under five years old and killed by a parent or caregiver. The majority of those children were living in homes that presented a high level of risk, but did not receive a basic risk assessment by a social worker.
The second review, chaired by Schibler, Tikinagan Child and Family Services head Michael Hardy and provincial ombudsman Irene Hamilton, examined the child-welfare system as a whole.
Both reports concluded the system needs more money, workers and training. In accepting all 220 recommendations in both reports, Family Services and Housing Minister Gord Mackintosh admitted Manitoba's child welfare system is underfunded and poorly resourced.
He has promised tens of millions of dollars will be coming to show the government's commitment to act on those recommendations and strengthen the system. Among the recommendations he has promised to act on are:
- Reducing caseworkers' workloads so they can visit children and families more often.
- Strengthening the province's child- and family-tracking computer system.
- Working with the federal government to strengthen on-reserve child and family welfare services and eliminate jurisdictional funding disputes.