The 2008 Michener Award finalists talk about their award winning stories and the people who helped make them happen – Michener Awards Ceremony, June 10, 2009.
The Winnipeg Free Press: The tragic death of a five-year old girl triggered a two-year investigation of the state of the First Nation child welfare system in Manitoba. The newspaper found that child welfare agency responsible for protecting her did not know she was missing until nine months after her death. Following a series of stories and editorials, the Manitoba government amended the provincial Child and Family Service Act to make child safety the primary consideration.
Your Excellencies, distinguished guests, distinguished journalists,
Phoenix Sinclair became a national story in 2007 when her parents were charged with her murder. She had been abused and tortured for months before her death, and nobody knew.
Her body had been dragged out of her home and buried in the woods of her northern Manitoba reserve, and nobody knew.
It was so hard to comprehend, that a child in care could die like this, and nobody know – for nine months.
The Winnipeg Free Press asked then-legislature reporter Mia Rabson and columnist Lindor Reynolds to investigate the province’s child and family services system.
All we had to go on, at first, was a school principal who told us something was wrong at the top; the board and all of its institutional knowledge had somehow vanished overnight.
The reason was devolution.
Everybody in our town, including the Winnipeg Free Press, supports devolution, which recognizes a child’s right to his or her own culture, and the right of that culture to look after its own children.
After the agonizing legacy of the residential school system, and the folly of the 1960s ‘scoop’, devolving the child welfare system to the hands of the people it served made sense.
But what we discovered as we investigated was a system in chaos. The changeover from a primarily white system to First Nations jurisdiction happened too quickly, with too little money, and too few trained social workers or appropriate foster homes.
Cases had been dumped at great speed into the new system, which struggled to keep up. Workers’ caseloads were often twice the recommended limit. And keeping families and cultures together was taking precedence over all other considerations.
Kids like Phoenix never stood a chance.
The paper came under fire from many who had fought hard for these changes. But the stories kept coming, of children who had died in care in an overwhelmed and under-resourced system.
Mary Agnes Welch and other Free Press reporters stayed on the story. Editorial writer Catherine Mitchell wrote powerful and eloquent editorials for the paper. And for her fierce and passionate stance on this issue, Lindor Reynolds was publicly pilloried as a racist.
Ultimately, the Winnipeg Free Press’s unrelenting work on this issue – Reynolds’ crusade in particular – led to the rewriting of Manitoba’s child welfare act to expressly state that a child’s safety will take precedence over all other considerations, including cultural and family ties, for kids in care in the province’s child welfare system.
The province also established a Child Welfare Secretariat to better co-ordinate the four aboriginal agencies created under devolution. More resources were put into training new First Nations case workers. And some $42 million dollars more was put into the system itself.
I believe the child welfare system in Manitoba is stronger, more accountable, and better managed now than ever before.
But this is no success story by any measure. There are 8,000 kids currently in care in Manitoba. And in the last year or so, at least sixteen of them have died.
Michener Awards Ceremony
June 10, 2009