Phoenix Sinclair inquiry to hear first from witnesses

Witnesses who were involved first-hand in the case of a little Manitoba girl who spent most of her short life in foster care will be first to testify at an inquiry into her death.

Witnesses who were involved first-hand in the case of a little Manitoba girl who spent most of her short life in foster care will be first to testify at an inquiry into her death.

The hearing into how Phoenix Sinclair died isn't set to start until July, but wrangling had already begun Tuesday over what details the public would hear first.

Lawyers for child welfare agencies argued the inquiry should lead off with internal government reports that came out after Phoenix's death was discovered in 2006 — nine months after the five-year-old died from prolonged abuse at the hands of her mother and stepfather.

The lawyers argued the reports, which have not been made public, would present the public with a full picture of what happened since they include the circumstances surrounding Phoenix's death.

But Commissioner Ted Hughes said he would rather hear from witnesses.

"I have been entrusted by the government with conducting a public inquiry. While the other reports have been written ... the government, in its wisdom, deemed that not to be sufficient for its purposes on behalf of the residents of this province," he said Tuesday.

"I feel I must hear the factual background with respect to the care provided or not provided to this child and this family in order for me to put the reports that have been written in their proper perspective."

Hearings to start July 4

The inquiry, which was called 10 months ago, is to start hearing testimony July 4 and is expected to hear from about 150 witnesses before it concludes next year.

Phoenix was killed by her mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl McKay, after repeated abuse.

Both were convicted of first-degree murder in 2008 and have exhausted their appeals.

Court heard during their trial that the pair neglected, confined and repeatedly beat the little girl. She died from her extensive injuries on a cold basement floor on the Fisher River reserve in 2005 and her body was buried in a shallow grave near the community dump.

The girl was taken by Child and Family Services at least twice during her short life — once at birth and again three years later — but she was returned to her mother each time.

The commission's mandate is to determine the circumstances surrounding Phoenix's death and to make recommendations for improving child welfare in Manitoba.

Lawyer Kris Saxberg, who represents child welfare authorities at the inquiry, said the case has been examined extensively over the last few years and a lot has changed.

He said that before the end of 2006, the ombudsman, chief medical examiner, children's advocate and auditor general all conducted internal reviews and submitted 295 recommendations which were accepted by the government.

Start inquiry with reports, says lawyer

Saxberg suggested that rather than go over old ground, the inquiry should start with those reports.

"Our clients … have been implementing these recommendations for six years resulting in major changes to the way that child welfare services are delivered in Manitoba," he said.

"Therefore, the belief that the facts aren't known about the services provided to Phoenix Sinclair or not provided, is simply incorrect.

"The facts are in the reports."

Commission counsel Sherri Walsh said the inquiry's scope will take it far beyond the initial internal reports.

"Only one of the report writers conducted any actual interviews of witnesses," she said.

"All the other report writers simply looked at the paper files. I don't see our process in any way duplicating what has been done."

Walsh said she is hopeful the inquiry can start hearing testimony this summer as scheduled, but cautioned there could be another delay if  all the witnesses cannot be interviewed beforehand with their lawyers present.

The commission also has to hear arguments and make a ruling about what the media can report during the inquiry.

Lawyers for the union representing social workers want to ban reporters from identifying any workers who testify. A hearing to discuss the motion is scheduled for May 24.