Phoenix Sinclair inquiry needs full disclosure, woman says

A woman who was at the centre of a high-profile Manitoba inquiry in 1989 says the media should be free to publish the names of social workers involved in the upcoming Phoenix Sinclair inquiry.

A woman who was at the centre of a high-profile Manitoba inquiry in 1989 says the media should be free to publish the names of social workers involved in the upcoming Phoenix Sinclair inquiry.

Marion Willis, a child welfare worker, had been accused of concealing evidence in the 1988 suicide of Lester Norman Desjarlais, a teenager born on Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation.

He hanged himself in the backyard of his foster home after suffering years of sexual abuse.

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

The subsequent inquest under provincial court judge Brian Giesbrecht exonerated Willis completely and instead found the case rife with political interference on the part of the First Nation leaders.

The inquest report subsequently called for the banning of band leaders from sitting on the boards of native child and family services agencies.

Willis told the CBC's Information Radio program that she believes everything about the case had to be transparent in order for the inquiry to succeed.

"Initially it was a horrific experience, but at the same time, I realize then as I do now that within any system — and especially when it involves children — we have to open ourselves up to public scrutiny," she said in an interview Thursday.

"In my situation, I had absolutely nothing to hide and I knew that if I was allowed to tell the story, the truth would unfold, and that's exactly what did happen."

Publication ban argued

hearing is presently underway in Winnipeg over whether media outlets should be allowed to identify social workers involved in the tragic life and death of Phoenix Sinclair.

A public inquiry is set for September to examine how the child welfare system failed to protect Phoenix, who was beaten to death in her home at the age of five.

Lawyers for the union representing child welfare authorities and the social workers, as well as lawyers for several child welfare agencies, are asking for a publication ban that would forbid reporters from naming or photographing any of the workers who were involved in Phoenix's case.

The Manitoba Government Employees Union argues that naming social workers in the inquiry could expose them to persecution.

Willis disagrees.

"The workers will indeed face a lot of challenges but again, I stood by my principles back in the '80s and I stick by them now; our child welfare system exists to protect children, not those that work in it," she said.

"The entire point of a public inquiry is to bring truth to the public and expose wrongdoing. If there is a media ban this will not happen," she added.

"It is also very important for the community to see that things are proceeding in a transparent and open way. If the media is blocked out, then this won't happen."

At the same time she hopes that individual workers do not become the focus of the inquiry.

"Whenever anything ever goes wrong within the child welfare system, the system always looks for someone to blame when in fact the culprit is usually the system itself," she said.

"There's supposed to be layers of oversight here, it doesn't just falls on the workers, it falls on the system."