Robert Sinclair, cousin of Brian Sinclair and the family spokesman, talks to reporters outside the Winnipeg courthouse on Tuesday. Ryan Hicks/CBC
The family of a man who died in his wheelchair after waiting 34 hours for help in a Winnipeg hospital's emergency room is pulling out of an inquest looking into his death.
Brian Sinclair's family members say they have lost confidence the inquest will result in meaningful changes to prevent future tragedies to vulnerable people.
The family and aboriginal groups announced in court on Tuesday they are pulling out of the second phase of the inquest, just as it is set to begin.
That leaves the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and the Manitoba Nurses’ Union as the only parties participating.
Phase two is set to examine ways to prevent similar deaths from happening in the future. But the Sinclair family, as well as some lawyers and aboriginal groups taking part in the inquest say Judge Timothy Preston is setting parameters that narrow the scope too much.
"We came here for the truth. It's obvious that we're not going to get the whole truth," Robert Sinclair, Brian's cousin and the family spokesperson, said on Tuesday.
"It's like the government is sugarcoating things … serious problems that exist in Manitoba hospitals for aboriginal people."
On Jan. 10, Preston announced that the inquest would look at overcrowding at Winnipeg emergency departments and delays in treating patients, as well as aboriginal health issues.
But aboriginal groups also want it to look at systemic racism issues in the health system.
"It appears to the Sinclair family that phase two will no longer allow the biases and attitudes that were at the root of Mr. Sinclair’s death to be fully understood, and will instead entrench the marginalization of aboriginal voices," states a letter written to Preston, announcing their intention to withdraw from the inquest.
“Last October, I heard Judge Preston say that ‘this court is alive to the issue of inequality and marginalization.’ He noted ‘the estrangement of aboriginal people from the halls of justice,’" Robert Sinclair said.
"But right now, this family feels very marginalized, and very estranged from the justice system.”
The inquest, which began in August 2013, has been examining the circumstances surrounding the death of Sinclair, a 45-year-old double-amputee.
Sinclair went to the Health Sciences Centre's emergency room on the afternoon of Sept. 19, 2008. He was sent there by a community clinic because he had not urinated in 24 hours.
It wasn't until 34 hours after he arrived at the hospital that he was found dead in his wheelchair after midnight on Sept. 21. He had not been triaged and he did not receive any care during his time there.
His death was later attributed to a treatable bladder infection caused by a blocked catheter.
In February 2010, Attorney General Andrew Swan rejected a call for a public inquiry into aboriginal health issues, stating that the inquest would be broad enough to deal with the issues raised by the aboriginal interveners in the inquest, according to the news release issued by the Sinclair family on Tuesday.
Because the inquest judge has decided to sideline those broad systemic issues, the Sinclair family will be renewing its call for a public inquiry.
“If we don’t fix the root problems, we are afraid there could be another Brian Sinclair. We cannot accept that," Robert Sinclair said.
"That is why we will continue to fight for fundamental systemic changes. We will therefore be renewing our call to the attorney general for a full public inquiry, and we will be asking every person and organization in Manitoba who is concerned about this human rights injustice to do the same.”
But on Tuesday, Swan echoed his previous sentiments, saying there were no plans to call a full public inquiry into Sinclair’s death.
“I think it’s important we let the inquest run its course, and I can tell you, there is no plan to call an inquiry,” he said.
Aboriginal groups withdraw
Aboriginal Legal Services and Ka Ni Kanichihk (an aboriginal support services agency) are the groups that have asked to be removed as parties with standing.
Emily Hill, a senior lawyer with the Toronto-based Aboriginal Legal Services, has said the inquest's narrowed scope will ignore the systemic issues facing aboriginal patients in the health-care system, such as discrimination.
"We believe that the legitimate concerns of many people in Winnipeg, in Manitoba, and across the country about Mr. Sinclair’s death will not be addressed,” she said.
"A number of witnesses have testified that staff at the Health Sciences Center made assumptions about Brian Sinclair – that he was intoxicated, that he was homeless, that he had nowhere else to go," stated a press release from ALST.
"Nurse witnesses have also testified that they did not see Mr. Sinclair, even though video footage showed many of them walking right by him and looking directly into the waiting room where he was seated in his wheelchair."
Aboriginal Legal Services did not make this decision lightly, said Christa Big Canoe, legal advocacy director for the organization.
"ALST got involved in this case because we thought it was important to provide an aboriginal perspective and to share expertise about the experiences of aboriginal patients to address best practices for providing care to our community," she said.
"Unfortunately the inquest is now focused on patient flow. Because the issues which brought ALST into this process are no longer central to the inquest, ALST can no longer justify expending its limited resources participating in the inquest."
The Sinclair family still wants to make closing submissions at the end of the inquest regarding evidence heard in phase one.
Robert Sinclair said the family will continue to fight not only for Brian but for others who may have experienced similar treatment.
“It’s about all the other people that are mistreated there that we don’t hear about, and I know there’s lots because you walk in my shoes, as an aboriginal person for 50 years, you will know that there’s hidden racism and discrimination in this country," he said.
Sinclair family letter to judge