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Manitoba sitting on report until byelections

Manitoba sitting on report until byelectionsPhoenix Sinclair is shown in a family photo released by the Commission of Inquiry looking into her 2005 death. Commissioner Ted Hughes is urging all lawyers involved to let the hearings continue. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

WINNIPEG - The Manitoba government is coming under fire for waiting until two byelections are held before releasing a final report into how social services failed a five-year-old girl who was murdered by her mother and stepfather.

For almost two years, a public inquiry examined the death of Phoenix Sinclair, who bounced in and out of foster care before being killed in 2005. Commissioner Ted Hughes was tasked with determining why the little girl slipped through the cracks and how her death went undiscovered for months.

He delivered his final report to the NDP government on Dec. 15.

A government spokeswoman said the commission's findings and recommendations won't be made public until after two byelections on Jan. 28. Angela Jamieson said a ban on government announcements during byelection campaigns prevents release of the commissioner's final report.

"Announcing or releasing a major report would be considered a significant publication, and would generate enormous interest in the provincial government’s activities and future plans," she said in an emailed statement. "This action would be contrary to the spirit of the legislation."

The report still has to be printed with charts and graphs inserted, she added. It was due to be printed by Jan. 31, "long before the byelections were called," she added.

Attorney General Andrew Swan declined to be interviewed. The government won't say exactly when the report will be made public after the byelections in Morris and Arthur-Virden.

Lawyer Jeff Gindin, who represented Sinclair's father and foster mother at the inquiry, said the government's interpretation of the law is startling.

"The idea that a byelection in Morris or Virden should outweigh the interests of the public generally and, particularly, the people who raised Phoenix Sinclair — Kim Edwards and Steve Sinclair — and their interests in finally finding out what's going to happen is mind-boggling," Gindin said.

The government has run afoul of its own law before. The elections commissioner found the NDP violated the law when it used government workers to organize a media tour of a new Winnipeg birthing centre days before the 2011 election campaign. The violation was found to be inadvertent and the NDP was not penalized.

The Liberals lodged a complaint against the NDP during that same campaign, alleging Premier Greg Selinger broke the law by announcing an after-school program for inner-city youth in conjunction with the Winnipeg Jets' charitable foundation. The complaint was dismissed.

Reading the section of the act cited by the government, Gindin said the province could argue that the commission's final report isn't covered by the law. There are several exceptions — including one relating to matters of public safety — that would apply to the report, he suggested.

At the very least, the government's decision to sit on the report is suspicious, Gindin said.

"Are they concerned that there will be some bad publicity before a byelection?" he asked. "I think it's pretty safe to say the government will be criticized in this report. It was fairly clear that lots of things were done improperly and should have been done differently."

Phoenix was killed by her mother, Samantha Kematch, and the woman's boyfriend, Karl McKay, after repeated abuse. Both were convicted of first-degree murder in 2008.

The pair tortured and beat Phoenix over many months before she died of extensive injuries on a cold basement floor in the couple's home on the Fisher River reserve. She was buried in a shallow grave near the community dump and Kematch continued to collect child subsidy cheques.

The inquiry heard that authorities had been contacted with allegations that Phoenix was being abused shortly before her death. A social worker visited Kematch, but left without seeing Phoenix and closed the child's file.

The girl was murdered three months later.

The inquiry, one of the most expensive in Manitoba's history, heard from 126 witnesses and is estimated to have cost at least $10 million.

Conservative critic Ian Wishart said releasing the report is a matter of public safety. There are almost 10,000 Manitoba children in care, he said.

"If any one of them comes to harm because of recommendations that are in the content of this report and there is no action taken during that period of time, it would certainly reflect badly on the government," he said.

"The safety of individual children is more important than these specific byelections."

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