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Family withdraws from inquest into Winnipeg man’s death during long ER wait

Rob Sinclair, cousin of Brian Sinclair, is shown outside the Winnipeg Law Courts with Vilko Zbogar, Toronto-based lawyer for the Sinclair family, on Nov. 17, 2009.

MIKE DEAL/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The family of a man who died during a 34-hour wait in a hospital emergency room is pulling out of the next part of an inquest into his death.

Two aboriginal groups have also withdrawn. The groups and the family say they have lost confidence that the inquest will help fix what they say is systemic racism that played a role in the death of Brian Sinclair.

"We came here for the truth, and it's obvious that we're not going to get the whole truth," Sinclair's cousin, Robert Sinclair, said outside court Tuesday.

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"If you walk in my shoes as an aboriginal person for 50 years, you will know that there is hidden racism and discrimination in this country, in this province, in the government systems."

Brian Sinclair was a 45-year-old aboriginal double-amputee. The inquiry has heard he was a substance abuser and frequent visitor to the emergency room at Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre. He died of a treatable bladder infection while waiting in the ER in September, 2008.

A community doctor referred Sinclair because he hadn't urinated in 24 hours. The inquest has heard that Sinclair spoke to a triage aide when he arrived and wheeled himself into the waiting room. He would languish there — vomiting several times as his condition deteriorated — without ever being officially triaged or examined by a medical professional.

Rigor mortis had set in by the time he was discovered dead.

A few people have told the inquest they told staff Sinclair appeared in need of help, but were dismissed. A security guard testified he assumed that Sinclair was intoxicated and "sleeping it off."

Sinclair's family, along with the two aboriginal groups, wanted the inquest to examine whether aboriginal people are treated differently by health-care workers. Provincial court Judge Tim Preston ruled last month his mandate was not that broad.

Unlike a public inquiry, which can examine wide-ranging societal issues, a provincial inquest in Manitoba is limited to issues directly linked to the case in question. A recent public inquiry into the death of one-time foster child Phoenix Sinclair included a systemic look at child-welfare services and cost $14 million.

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Preston ruled that the second phase of the inquest, which began Tuesday, is to focus on hospital overcrowding and delays. There is to be one witness in the coming weeks who will testify about how to improve services for aboriginal patients.

"It appears to the Sinclair family that Phase 2 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," Sinclair family lawyer Murray Trachtenberg told court Tuesday.

Preston called the decision to withdrawn regrettable and rejected a request by the two aboriginal groups — Ka Ni Kanichihk and Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto — to be removed as parties from the inquest altogether.

The judge said lawyers for the groups and the family were welcome to attend further and to make final submissions when the inquiry wraps up in the spring.

Outside court, Trachtenberg said the family plans to renew pressure on the Manitoba government to call a public inquiry into racism in the health-care system.

"Judge Preston has made it clear that an inquest is not the appropriate vehicle. It has to be an inquiry."

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