Saturday, September 20, 2014
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Lakritz: Platitudes won’t prevent another Phoenix Sinclair case


There’s an aura of deja vu about the report on the death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair. Everyone is saying the same things they always do after inquiries like these.

Phoenix is the Manitoba child who was murdered nine years ago after being abused by her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, and whose death wasn’t noticed by child welfare authorities for nine months.

An inquiry headed by commissioner Ted Hughes cost $14 million and found that throughout Phoenix’s short, tragic life, child and family services officials received 13 notices about concerns for the little girl’s safety. Hughes also found that “files were opened and closed, often without a social worker ever laying eyes on Phoenix.”

While Phoenix’s mother, Samantha Kematch and boyfriend Karl McKay, are serving life sentences for her murder, none of the individuals involved with this case has apparently lost their job, and one of Hughes’ recommendations is for Manitoba to show leadership in the issue of aboriginal children being in care across the country in disproportionate numbers. Nothing new there.

Meanwhile, Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs feels his people don’t want to see more centralizing of a child welfare system that removes kids from their culture, and he talked of “a genocide that’s continuing to happen. The precedent for apprehension of children against the will of families started in the residential school era. It’s still happening today.”

The only “genocide” that’s happening is the one that aboriginal parents like Kematch and McKay are perpetrating on their own children. Whether it’s through lesser forms of abuse and neglect that land their kids in care, or through murder as in Phoenix’s case, these parents are single-handedly destroying the next generation of aboriginal Canadians.

Yes, the child and family services agency showed shocking and reprehensible negligence in Phoenix’s case. But this is hardly the occasion for Nepinak to complain about kids being removed from their culture. Phoenix lived on Manitoba’s Fisher River reserve. She was in her culture. But her mom and stepfather were not taking her to powwows and teaching her about her heritage. They were shooting her with BB guns, beating her and forcing her to eat her own vomit. Phoenix absolutely should have been taken from them and placed permanently in another home — whether aboriginal or not — where she would have been safe and cared for and loved.

And if, as Nepinak says, children are being apprehended “against the will of families,” then it’s up to those families to care for their children properly so they are not apprehended.

Nepinak talked of wanting a focus on elders’ expertise and more support for a generation still suffering the effects of the residential school era. But where were the elders at Fisher River? Why didn’t any of them intervene to stop Phoenix’s abuse? And as for support for parents in the wake of the residential schools, they have to be willing to seek help. It can’t be forced on anyone. Change has to start with each person saying, “What happened to me was wrong, but I’m going to do things differently. I’m going to get the help I need to be the best parent I can possibly be.”

The support Nepinak talked about is already there. Health Canada provides a 24-hour crisis hotline for residential school survivors and their families, which helps them access mental health services through the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program, and get assistance with cultural and emotional support, counselling, and even transportation if the services needed aren’t available locally.

Until parents accept that they alone are the agents of change for the next generation of aboriginal children, all the words swirling around the Phoenix Sinclair case will remain useless platitudes to be evoked again at the next inquiry.

Naomi Lakritz is a Herald columnist.

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