Phoenix Inquiry: Truth and its consequences
“People can’t make choices they didn’t know they had” — wise Manitoba lawyer
I’ve never met Steve Sinclair. I don’t really know the first thing about him.
But over the past few weeks I’ve had to really watch myself — to guard against the conceit that I somehow do.
Ever since testimony really got underway in the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry a few weeks back, I’ve spent more than a few moments pondering her dad.
To be more specific: I’ve been trying to put my head around what it might be like to see intimate personal details about your troubled life through your childhood and young adulthood be cast out into the street for all to bear witness to day after day after day for all to see.
Manitoba is undertaking an inquiry into Phoenix Sinclair’s short existence, for sure — but in many instances it’s also appeared to have taken on the shape and form of a microscopic examination of Steve’s life as well.
I suppose it’s unavoidable. No. That’s just wrong. It is unavoidable.
It would be simply impossible to get to the bottom of what actions CFS took (or, as it’s becoming more clear didn’t take but maybe could have) during Phoenix’s all-too-short lifetime without proffering explicit details about Sinclair’s life and the circumstances which informed it before and after after his daughter was born.
We’ve been given a lot of information about Sinclair’s troubled past and, it must be said, reputed failings as a father. But those observations have largely all been filtered through the sieve of the minds, priorities and discretionary note-taking and observations of social workers and other CFS officials.
Sinclair drank heavily at times, we’re told. Couldn’t stay sober enough to hang on to Phoenix at one point. Appears to have abandoned her and vanished at another. Came from a background of CFS involvement and family abuse. Was on welfare. Didn’t seem to work.
And, it perhaps goes without saying: At least one time in his life Sinclair displayed horrible taste in whom he became romantically involved with.
But lost in the bureaucratic morass of case summaries, field visits and wrangling over lost notes and the imprecise departmental distinctions between safety and risk, there’s clearly another side to Sinclair.
To put it simply: It’s pretty apparent he tried.
Tried to play by the CFS rules to be a good dad despite a gloomy history of involvement with CFS agencies, its agents and foster homes over his lifetime. Tried to be a dad to his daughter in circumstances most would find beyond trying or manageable.
And likely, although it hasn’t been explicitly stated, seems to have tried to overcome his reputation as a “passive resistant” CFS client.
Hell, his real name is Nelson Draper Steve Sinclair, but consistently CFS workers refer and referred to him as “Steven.” [I’ve done this too in two separate reports and I felt horribly.]
Think about how remarkable Sinclair’s efforts are, really. Think of them in the context of the sickening and judgemental tenor of our society’s (mostly anonymous) gum-flapping about “welfare bums” and “natives” abusing the social-welfare system. Not to mention within the often-mentioned reality that aboriginal communities need fathers to step up. (More: Here).
More kids equals more free government assistance cash. Blah, blah, blah. (God, how our criticisms have become dismally uninformed and trite.)
I’m asking you to regard Sinclair within the context of the inquiry’s evidence so far.
That being: Sinclair as a young aboriginal man who clearly had little to no material wealth or grand future prospects and who didn’t just throw up his hands when his daughter was born and seized by CFS.
He agreed to work with the agency. And he did. As far as we’ve been made aware, between April 2000 and at least February 2001, he met all the demands placed on him. He, Kematch and Phoenix appeared to have a stable home life.
Then came April 2001 and the birth of Echo, his second daughter. It’s impossible to really know whether it was a lack of CFS diligence which allowed he and Kematch to leave the hospital without any CFS intervention (It was Delores Chief-Abigosis’s file at this point) or if it was because there were no child-protection concerns for Echo at the time.
Nevertheless, it’s pretty clear by now who was viewed as the real risk to Phoenix, and it wasn’t Sinclair.
When Kematch left their home a few weeks later with Echo in tow, it was Steve who picked up the ball and ran with it.
A couple of days later Kematch brought Echo back in a filthy state , leaving Sinclair a single dad who cared for both the kids, ostensibly with some help from friends. When Chief-Abigosis visited with him in July 2001, Steve was the person feeding Echo, holding her.
He and his sisters organized a sit-down with a worker this month to lay bare their concerns about what was going on in Steve’s life.
Then, Echo died suddenly of a respiratory infection, through no fault of Sinclair’s. Police quickly determined there was no foul play involved.
In the wake of Echo’s death, CFS says they offered Steve services on a voluntary basis. We don’t know yet why he rejected them — but it’s clear he was still working with community resources of some kind. I’ve never experienced such a great loss, so I won’t presume to get into Sinclair’s head as to what he was going through.
Months passed without apparent incident, except for Phoenix being brought to hospital in early 2003 with a thing in her nose, which may have been there for months. Worker Laura Forrest met with him soon after — at the same home he had lived in for about two years at this point.
She described Sinclair as “foul but sober” in her dealings with him. Insisting she’d return to see Phoenix, his reply, according to her, was “we’ll see about that.” How to interpret that properly? It’s impossible to know, really.
Phoenix would be be apprehended again June 22, 2003 after Sinclair apparently couldn’t get his act together enough to satisfy pairs of CFS workers he was able to care for Phoenix. There was no evidence whatsoever she was being abused in any way. Possible neglect was the real worry. Possible.
Phoenix was described emphatically by workers who sat with her in her the Place Louis Riel hotel room emergency placement as “well behaved,” as well as potty trained — so there had to be some parenting happening, some measure of honest care, in her life.
And although Kematch resurfaced at this point, making overtures to parent Phoenix, it was Sinclair who turned up in court on Aug. 13, 2003 with worker Stan Williams to say he wanted to resume parenting once he got things together.
Williams isn’t alive today to share his version and impressions of Steve, but through his boss, we learned he became a fierce advocate for the 21-year-old dad, believed in him to the point he’d basically — for right or wrong — convince his boss to get CFS to hand Phoenix back to Sinclair unconditionally on Oct. 2, 2003.
From there, it’s hard to say what the hell happened.
We do know CFS believes Phoenix somehow wound up in the care of Kematch for a while before she then mysteriously made her way to the safety of foster parent Rohan Stephenson, who, along with his ex, Kim, were good and trusted friends of Sinclair’s — people he (and CFS) trusted to care for Phoenix.
Had Sinclair gone off the rails and ditched out on being a dad?
He was hard to find — but it’s clear that when a worker finally spoke with him on Feb. 5, 2004, he agreed the best thing for Phoenix was for her to stay with the Stephensons as an unofficial place of safety. In a sense — that action was his doing right by Phoenix.
And that’s where we’re left off for now. Yes, there are gaps. Yes, there are some questionable decisions Sinclair made.
But he didn’t ever, ever appear to hurt his little girl — and he certainly didn’t murder her. Neglect her at times, perhaps, sure.
Wednesday morning, Sinclair is scheduled to take the witness stand.
We’re going to hear first-hand his side of the story. Why he chose to act as he did.
But to me, the inquiry — the most expensive such public proceeding in Manitoba’s history, and probably the most contentious — wouldn’t be possible without some major buy-in from Steve Sinclair, some continued effort on his part to see some kind of answers to what sounds like an easy question:
What the hell happened here?
Even in light of Phoenix’s death, Sinclair’s participation in the inquiry, to me, shows he was a father who cared.
And that’s a lot more than many, many other kids in Manitoba have.
We’re not in a position to judge Steve Sinclair.
People can’t make choices they didn’t know they had.