WINNIPEG - Days before he helped beat his girlfriend's daughter to death, Karl McKay said in front of the girl that she was too ugly to be related to him, an inquiry was told Thursday.
In early June 2005, McKay ran into one of his cousins, Florence Bear, outside a store near the Fisher River reserve. McKay was standing outside his car, Bear testified Thursday, and inside the vehicle was McKay's girlfriend, Samantha Kematch, and her daughter from a previous relationship, Phoenix Sinclair.
"I asked if that was his baby, and he commented 'no, she's too ugly to be mine and there is no resemblance,'" Bear said.
The inquiry is examining how Manitoba child welfare failed to protect Phoenix. She had spent much of her life in foster care or in the care of family friends before social workers closed her file a final time in March 2005, shortly before her fifth birthday.
She suffered horrific abuse at the hands of Kematch and McKay, including being shot with a BB gun and being forced to eat her own vomit. She died after a brutal beating on the concrete basement floor of the family's home.
Bear told the inquiry Phoenix looked lonely and "sad" when she saw her in McKay's vehicle. She also seemed to be largely ignored by the adults.
"Phoenix was going to get up, and Mom just used her left arm to kind of push her to sit down."
The event was one of the few times in 2005 that anyone outside of the Phoenix's immediate family saw her. Much of the testimony at the inquiry has indicated that Phoenix had become practically invisible to neighbours, relatives and child welfare.
In March 2005, two social workers went to the family's apartment in Winnipeg to check on an anonymous tip that Phoenix was being abused. They talked to Kematch, who said she had simply yelled at the girl, and left without seeing Phoenix and closed her file.
The following month, the family moved to the Fisher River reserve and rented a bungalow from Angela Murdoch. Murdoch told the inquiry Thursday she rented the home to McKay and never asked whether there were kids in the house. She didn't even know of Phoenix's existence until the girl's body was discovered.
When Murdoch visited the home one time to collect rent, Kematch kept her outside.
"She wouldn't open up the door. Just a crack, she opened it up."
McKay visited the band office in April to apply for welfare, listing Phoenix and two other children as dependents, documents tabled at the inquiry show. Applicants normally have to bring their dependents with them when they apply, but it's not clear whether McKay did.
The worker who dealt directly with McKay has since died, and the woman who ran the band welfare program, Shirley Cochrane, testified Thursday that she could not remember whether McKay arrived with others.
The band issued welfare cheques to McKay between May and November of 2005 with Phoenix still listed as a dependent. Phoenix had in fact been dead for months by the time the last cheque was issued. Her death would go unnoticed until the following spring.
Phoenix had also dropped off the radar of relatives. In October 2005, Bear went to pick up McKay and the family for Thanksgiving dinner. McKay, Kematch and their infant girl got in Bear's vehicle, Bear told the inquiry. There was no sign of Phoenix and Bear did not ask about her.
Later in October, McKay, Kematch and their baby moved in with Bear and her husband. Phoenix was nowhere to be seen and Bear said her name never came up in conversation.
By that time, Phoenix's battered body was lying in a makeshift grave near the Fisher River dump. McKay was sullen and depressed, Bear said, while Kematch seemed happy and very attentive to her baby.
"She would play with her baby. When she wanted to go have a smoke, she would go and put the baby in the bedroom, and when she'd done her smoke, she'd go get the baby out and play with her," Bear said.
Another relative of McKay's — a second cousin named Darlene Garson — testified Thursday she asked McKay and Kematch about Phoenix at some point in 2005. She could not remember exactly when.
"I asked (McKay) 'where's your stepdaughter, Phoenix?, and he just said, 'I sent her off with her granny.'"
"How did they act when you got that information?," asked Kathleen McCandless, one of the lawyers leading the inquiry.
"They just started laughing," Garson replied.
"Did you ask any more questions after that?," McCandless asked
Phoenix's death would remain undiscovered until the following spring, when a relative called police. When confronted by a social worker, Kematch tried to pass off a friend's daughter as Phoenix. The ruse did not work and Kematch and McKay were arrested.
The couple were convicted of first-degree murder in 2008 and are serving life sentences.