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September-October 2018

Why did a young mother die in an alley after she was admitted to hospital? Her family says it’s because she was Indigenous

Windy Sinclair went to a Winnipeg ER. Three hours later, she went missing. Her body was found frozen in an alleyway three days after.

Ryan Thorpe

Eleanor Sinclair at her daughter Windy’s vigil. Photo courtesy of Ryan Thorpe

It was freezing in Winnipeg, cold enough that frostbite threatened to set in minutes; the kind of cold that sets deep in the bones, down to the marrow. Unforgiving wind ripped through flat, icy streets, and snowdrifts piled along sidewalks. A frigid, stainless steel sky descended on the prairie capital.

By the time Windy Sinclair, a young Indigenous mother, went missing Christmas night in 2017, an unrelenting cold snap was stretching into its second week. In the days after she disappeared, her family phoned police, hospitals, remand centres, and downtown hotels and bars, asking whoever picked up if she was there. They monitored her social media accounts for signs of life. They loaded into an old van, maneuvering through the city’s sleet-covered streets, in search of her. Her children wondered when she was coming home. Her mother prayed.

Then, four days after the disappearance, came the knock at the door. Windy’s crumpled body had been found in a dirty, inner-city back alley, so frozen it took police two days and two space heaters to unthaw it enough to move.

Six weeks later, Eleanor Sinclair stood and stared at the spot her daughter was found frozen and dead. Her shoulders slumped forward and shook as she sobbed. Her head hung low as if in prayer. As tears crested her cheekbones, she whispered something to herself—or maybe to her daughter’s spirit. On that day, Windy would have turned 30. In her memory, Eleanor organized a vigil. Nine people showed up. One of them, a small child held in her mother’s arms, wanted to leave as soon as they’d arrived; it was still incredibly cold out. The group huddled in the back lane, bracing themselves against the elements.

It wasn’t as cold that day for the mourners as it had been when Windy arrived. The last week of her life was one long severe weather warning. It remains unclear how Windy ended up at the spot she was found. What is known, however, is that the chain of events leading to the discovery of her body was remarkably tragic, yet entirely commonplace.

Windy’s death marked one more soul snatched away from the streets of Winnipeg, a city with a long history of Indigenous murders and deaths that sits like an open scar on the community’s heart. Had Windy’s body not been found, it’s likely her death would have passed like those of so many Indigenous women: unreported and ignored.

***

On December 25, 2017, as the Sinclair family prepared to sit down to a traditional Christmas supper of turkey, mashed potatoes, biscuits, and gravy, paramedics were dispatched to their North End home. The area has long been Winnipeg’s most socially disadvantaged and deprived, pocked by high levels of addiction, crime, and gang membership, and low levels of employment and median income. Bordered on the south by a rail yard, the North End is cleaved off from the rest of the city. Community activists say the yard serves as both a physical and psychological barrier between the haves and have-nots; one local playwright described it as Winnipeg’s Berlin Wall.

That night, Windy was intoxicated, hallucinating, and paranoid, convinced a man was coming to kidnap her and her daughter. Eleanor had been concerned with her behaviour all afternoon after she’d caught her mumbling to inanimate objects in their home. “I knew right away she wasn’t herself,” she remembers.


At 11:15 p.m., a nurse went to check on Windy and tell her she was expecting a child. But she was nowhere to be found


The erratic behaviour kept escalating. Eventually, Windy picked up the phone and dialled 911, telling the operator someone was coming to steal her children. Eleanor grabbed the phone and explained what was really going on: Her daughter was high and confused, and while she worried for her well-being, she thought the safest place for her was at home. After hanging up, Eleanor tried to calm her daughter down. It didn’t work. Windy dialled 911 again. Once more Eleanor took the phone from her. In doing so, she accidentally hung up. Two calls in one night with a disconnection meant the operator had no choice; someone had to be dispatched.

Minutes later, an ambulance pulled up to the home. Paramedics checked Windy’s vitals and asked her some questions. In an incident report, one wrote that during the conversation Windy stood up abruptly, walked to the kitchen sink, and turned on the tap. Then she walked back and sat down, leaving the water running. The paramedics asked what drugs she did and Windy told them she injected methamphetamine, explaining sometimes she mixed it with opioids like fentanyl or morphine. Under the portion of the incident report labeled “Primary Impression,” a paramedic wrote: Poisoning/OD.

The paramedics told Eleanor that Windy needed to be transferred to Seven Oaks General Hospital for observation and testing. That forced Eleanor to make a decision. Two of Windy’s children—Travis, then 11, and Samarrah, then five, both of whom Eleanor has custody of—were at her home. The children had been in Eleanor’s care throughout the entirety of Windy’s battle with addiction, which began after her father died in 2015. (Windy also had two other children—Aaron, eight, and Harvey, five—who were not at the home that night. Aaron lives with his father, while Harvey is in foster care.) Eleanor knew she couldn’t leave the children at home. She also didn’t want to take them to the emergency room on Christmas. She decided she and the children would stay home and check on Windy the next day. She explained to the paramedics that should anything come up, hospital staff would have to call her at their family home, not the out-of-date number listed on Windy’s medical file. The paramedics wrote down the correct emergency contact number and promised to pass it along to staff when they arrived at Seven Oaks. As her daughter was led out the door, Eleanor pushed a winter coat into her arms. The temperature outside was nearing -30 C; she hoped it would keep her warm.

Hospital records show Windy was signed into the care of Seven Oaks emergency room staff at 8:06 p.m. Ten minutes later she was seen by a triage nurse, who noted in Windy’s file she was an intravenous meth user behaving erratically. Staff then led Windy to a nearby room, located close to a nursing station where she could be observed, to wait for a doctor. Once again it was noted in her file that she was behaving strange: Her speech was slurred and she told staff she wanted to leave. For still-unknown reasons, the decision was made to move her to a different room, tucked away at the back of the hospital wing, far from the watchful eyes of the nursing station.

At 8:48 p.m. Windy was seen by a doctor, who ordered an IV sedative and a pregnancy test, the latter standard procedure for women of child-bearing age when they come to an emergency room. The results would later show Windy was two months pregnant; there’s no evidence to suggest she knew. At 11:15 p.m. a nurse went to check on her and tell her she was expecting a child. But Windy was nowhere to be seen. Windy had pulled out her IV, gathered her belongings, wandered down the hall, and walked out the hospital’s east exit. Security footage shows her stumbling out the door, her jacket undone as she ventured outside.

When hospital staff realized she was missing, they pulled up Windy’s medical file and called the out-of-date emergency contact number listed. No one picked up. Either the paramedics did not pass along the correct phone number, or staff didn’t bother to call it. Windy’s family was not told she was missing, and no further efforts were made to contact them.

Three days later, on the morning of December 28, a woman looked out her apartment window in the city’s West Broadway neighbourhood, roughly 10 kilometres south of Seven Oaks. She saw something in her back lane, but convinced herself it was a pile of clothes. Minutes later, second guessing her eyes, she walked out back to check. It was Windy’s body, tucked away out of sight in a back alley by a heating vent.

***

There are many holes in the story of Windy’s disappearance. It’s unclear why she was moved from a room where she could be closely observed to one at the back of the hospital wing. It’s unclear why no one checked on her for so long after she was given a sedative. It’s unclear why she was left alone while exhibiting signs consistent with drug-induced psychosis and expressing a desire to leave. It’s unclear why she wasn’t held under the Mental Health Act, which allows people to be detained for their own safety. It remains unclear whether or not a “Code Yellow”—a hospital procedure used, among other reasons, to search for patients who leave against medical advice—was called after staff realized she was missing. It’s unclear why Windy’s family wasn’t notified she had disappeared. It’s unclear why Eleanor was told, when calling the next morning to ask about her daughter, that she’d completed treatment and was discharged. So much about what happened, and did not happen, remains unclear. And that, Eleanor says, is because her daughter was Indigenous in a hospital in Winnipeg.

Winnipeg: The city once dubbed Canada’s most racist by Maclean’s magazine. The city of J.J. Harper, Brian Sinclair, Claudette Osborne, Matthew Dumas, Errol Greene, Tina Fontaine, and countless others whose deaths and disappearances went unreported and whose names no one will ever know. Eleanor recognizes her daughter made poor choices that helped lead her to the alley where her body was found. She also believes her daughter was failed by Seven Oaks. That she still had time to turn her life around. That her death was preventable. Eleanor says the fact her daughter’s skin was brown altered what did and did not happen the night she went missing.

2

The details of Windy’s death kicked off a minor media stir, with the city’s major news outlets all chasing the story, and Canadian Press copy picked up by national publications. (The writer of this piece was among reporters covering the story.) But news cycles are quick and collective memory short. Six weeks after her body was found, only one publication sent a reporter to Windy’s vigil. The city’s meth epidemic had already offered up new casualties. In August 2017, a police spokesman told reporters Winnipeg was in the grips of a serious meth problem. Months later, the chief of police said at a press conference that the situation was so bad it was starting to keep him up at night. By all accounts meth is easily available and readily consumed on the streets of Winnipeg, which has corresponded with an uptick in violent and property crimes carried out by those desperate to fund their next hit. A local harm-reduction program estimated it gave out 1.5 million clean syringes over the past year. During a six month period that year, the Bear Clan Patrol, an Indigenous-led crime prevention group based out of the North End, said it picked up 3,000 used needles off the street.

At the vigil, Eleanor lit a candle and whispered a prayer for her daughter. Meanwhile, a few kilometres away, hundreds came together in the city’s downtown at The Forks, the historic meeting place of the region’s Indigenous peoples. They gathered in opposition to the verdict in the Gerald Stanley second-degree murder trial. Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man, was shot in the back of the head at point blank range in August 2016. After deliberation, an all-white jury acquitted Stanley, the Saskatchewan farmer who pulled the trigger, sparking nationwide protests and outrage.

With so much death and pain it can be hard to keep track of all the vigils. In front of flashing cameras and reporters scribbling in notebooks, demonstrators expressed frustration and anger at what many call the systemic racism of the Canadian justice system. Addressing the crowd, then-Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North declared that 150 years of Canadian history weighed on Stanley’s finger as he pulled the trigger. “It wasn’t just an accident. There were years of history that went behind that gunshot that took that life,” North said.

As the words fell from North’s lips, Eleanor wept, standing over the spot her daughter’s body had been found, lamenting what she believes is the institutional racism of the Canadian health care system. The sense Windy’s death had already been forgotten was palpable. It was exactly what Eleanor feared most: Her daughter had become a statistic. “She’s just one more dead Native woman,” Eleanor says.

Twelve days later, the jury in another high-profile murder trial ended deliberations. Raymond Cormier stood accused of murdering 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, whose body was pulled from Winnipeg’s Red River in 2014, wrapped in a duvet and weighed down with rocks. Her death was a catalyst for the creation of Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The hope of “Justice for Tina,” the rallying cry shouted at protests in her honour, was in many ways the stand-in for the overdue justice that had eluded too many for too long. The verdict: not guilty.

***

After her daughter’s death, Eleanor had a series of meetings with staff and administration from Seven Oaks General Hospital and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, the city’s governing body for health care regulation. She was looking for answers, but says she came out with more questions. (The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority declined comment for this story, saying it couldn’t speak publicly about the case due to patient privacy concerns.) When interviewed in June, Eleanor said she still had not learned whether or not hospital staff called a “Code Yellow” when Windy disappeared, which could have protected her that night. She also says a doctor who attended one of the meetings told her Windy had been “lucid” enough to leave on her own the night she went missing.

“She was hallucinating. She was clearly under the influence. They had given her a [sedative]. But she’s lucid enough to leave?” Eleanor says. “They didn’t even look for her. Her life didn’t matter to them. I even told them, ‘If it was that cold outside, you would bring in your pet. You’d have that compassion for your pet. Why didn’t you show my daughter that compassion?’”

Shortly after a local news outlet reported the discovery of Windy’s body, the Winnipeg Police Service, in one of its only public statements on the case, said it did not consider her death suspicious and would have no further updates for media. How and when she got to that back alley is still a mystery. Manitoba’s chief medical examiner has not yet provided an official cause of death.


A 2015 report says anti-Indigenous racism is so common in the nation’s health care system that “people strategize around anticipated racism before visiting the emergency department or, in some cases, avoid care altogether”


Eleanor will likely never get the answers she’s after. On one point, however, she has no doubt: Had the hospital done what it was supposed to, Windy wouldn’t have ended up in that alley. In her view, the hospital failed in its duty of care. And that, she says, is symptomatic of the systemic racism simmering below the surface in Winnipeg hospitals.

A few months after her daughter’s death, while the meetings with hospital representatives were still ongoing, Eleanor sat at her kitchen table reminiscing about her late husband, and Windy’s father, Brian. He had been chronically ill prior to his death, so the two of them often went to Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre, the closest hospital to their home. “The first thing the nurse would say to him when we walked in was, ‘Okay Brian, what kind of drugs do you want now?’” she says. “It’s not, ‘Hey Brian, why did you come to the hospital? What symptoms do you have?’ That’s the attitude. That’s the kind of treatment he would get.” The racism her husband experienced at Winnipeg hospitals made him increasingly unlikely to seek out medical treatment late in life to avoid the humiliation he felt being stereotyped as the drug-seeking “drunk Indian.”

Research on anti-Indigenous bias in Canadian health care shows Eleanor’s husband wasn’t alone in feeling this way. Citing a string of academic studies, a 2015 report published by the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based non-profit think tank, says anti-Indigenous racism is so common in the nation’s health care system that “people strategize around anticipated racism before visiting the emergency department or, in some cases, avoid care altogether.”

A 2011 study cited in the report took a closer look at the experiences of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people accessing care at an inner-city emergency department. The researchers found Indigenous participants believed being identified as “Aboriginal and poor” may negatively affect their credibility in the eyes of health care professionals and hinder their ability to get help.

Refusing to go to the hospital, Eleanor’s husband died of pneumonia at home in December 2015. His death served as the spark for his daughter’s struggle with addiction, which would later lead her into the emergency room of Seven Oaks. Two years to the day of Brian’s death, police arrived at Eleanor’s home, telling her Windy was dead.

Dr. Shannon McDonald, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for British Columbia’s First Nations Health Authority, who called Winnipeg home most of her life, says it’s nearly impossible to say for certain whether anti-Indigenous racism was at play in how Windy was treated at Seven Oaks. “I suppose we can say it’s possible [racism was a factor]. Knowing some of the previous circumstances in Winnipeg that have been well reported, it may even be probable,” McDonald says. These previous incidents include, among others, the death of Brian Sinclair (who shares the same name as Eleanor’s deceased husband, but is not related). Sinclair, a 45-year-old double amputee confined to a wheelchair, came to Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre seeking help for a blocked catheter in September 2008. A subsequent inquest into his death determined he was ignored for 34 hours while waiting in the emergency room, with staff later admitting they assumed he was drunk, homeless, or both. He died of a treatable bladder infection in Manitoba’s largest hospital. By the time anyone noticed he was dead, rigor mortis had set in and an official time of death couldn’t be determined.

The Brian Sinclair Working Group, a collection of doctors and academics who conducted an investigation into Sinclair’s death, released a report with a series of recommendations in September 2017. That month, in response to the report, the interim president of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said it was time to “come to terms” with the way “systemic racism” can affect health care services. Three months later Windy walked into the emergency room at Seven Oaks.

“This young woman coming in, intoxicated, incoherent, she would have been considered troublesome,” McDonald says. “This young woman would have confirmed for some people their image of a drug-using Indigenous person, who may not have been considered as valuable as other patients. I’ve worked in situations where that’s the case, where people that I’ve worked with professionally sometimes see some patients as more worthy of their efforts than others.”

***

Eleanor has still been fighting to learn more about what happened that night. She’s also trying to get Seven Oaks to acknowledge the ways she says hospital staff let her daughter down. Both of those battles, Eleanor says, have so far been in vain. “Her life should matter to them. Her life did matter,” Eleanor says. “But I am going to make sure that changes are made. And if I have to go protest outside the Seven Oaks then I will do that. I can’t let them get away with this one. She mattered. She mattered to a lot of people.”

At the same time, Eleanor has been raising two of Windy’s children, Travis and Samarrah. She dreads the day Samarrah starts asking hard questions about what happened to her mother. She doesn’t yet understand it, and can’t wrap her head around the fact her mom is really gone. “She’s going to ask me what I did about it,” Eleanor says. “So I need to be able to say I made them accountable. That I did anything that I could to try and make her life meaningful. To make sure that nobody else goes through this.”

3

Sitting in her home, the last place she saw her daughter alive, Eleanor broke down and cried, recounting the time, not long after Windy died, when she took her granddaughter on a trip outside the city.

“I had to drop my Mom and Dad off out of town. I took her with me. On the way back she said, ‘I can see the stars.’ Because she hasn’t been out of the city in the longest time. I said, ‘Yeah baby, there’s a lot of stars out there.’ So we stopped and got out and looked, and she said, ‘I miss my Mommy.’ And I said, ‘Yeah baby, I miss her, too.’”

Eleanor’s voice began to quiver and shake. She tried to compose herself, holding it all in to finish the story. But the dam had cracked behind the weight of the pain. Then, it burst open. She lost control, the words barely audible through her sobs.

“I said, ‘Look for the biggest star baby, that’s probably your Mom.’ So she’s walking around the van trying to find the biggest star. Then she finally finds it and she goes, ‘That’s my Mommy. That’s my Mommy shining brightly.’ And I said, ‘Yeah baby, that’s her.’”

That night, Eleanor made up imaginary errands the two of them needed to run. Her granddaughter didn’t want to lose sight of the star, and Eleanor didn’t have the heart to spoil it for her. They just kept driving, staying out until the clock on the van’s dashboard read 3 a.m. Eventually, she pulled back into the city, winding through the residential streets of the North End, before parking outside their home. Then she carried her granddaughter inside and tucked her into bed, as her mother had once, long ago, in better times.

“Now once in a while she goes out into the backyard and tries to find that star,” Eleanor says, with tears in her eyes. “But here in the city, you can barely see the stars.”

Ryan Thorpe is a reporter and writer born and raised in the Canadian prairies. He works the city news beat for the Winnipeg Free Press. A graduate of Niagara College’s journalism program, his reporting has appeared in newspapers in Manitoba and Ontario, including, among others, the Brandon Sun and the Hamilton Spectator.

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