WINNIPEG - Phoenix Sinclair would have celebrated her 11th birthday this year.

Instead, six years after her murder, an inquiry into how child welfare failed the Manitoba girl started Tuesday with a retired judge hearing applications for standing.

Child services agencies, aboriginal organizations, the girl's biological father and her foster mother all want to be heard when the inquiry starts calling witnesses in the fall.

Phoenix was five when she was killed by her mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl McKay, after years of abuse. Both were convicted of first-degree murder in 2008 and have exhausted their appeals.

The pair neglected, confined and repeatedly beat the little girl. Court was told she was shot with a BB gun and forced to eat her own vomit before dying from her extensive injuries on a cold basement floor on the Fisher River reserve in 2005.

"It is important for us all to remember today, and throughout the course of these proceedings, that what prompted this inquiry into the tragic death of a five-year-old child was the child herself -- Phoenix Victoria Hope Sinclair," commission counsel Sherri Walsh said.

The inquiry will examine how Manitoba child welfare failed to protect Phoenix and why no one noticed her death.

Although First Nations culture considers children to be sacred, Phoenix wasn't treated that way, Walsh said.

"She died a horrible death which then went undiscovered for nine months," the lawyer told the inquiry.

"In this case, the public has not had an opportunity to know how it is that a small child can become invisible to the scrutiny and concern which our society recognizes she was owed."

The girl was apprehended by child and family services at least twice -- once at birth and again three years later -- but was returned to her mother.

Gordon McKinnon, lawyer for the province, said some 40 employees in Winnipeg's Child and Family Services had contact with Phoenix and her family during the five short years of her life.

"Either by telephone or by attendance or by being involved in the apprehension or the court proceedings, they all had some degree of contact," McKinnon said. "There was a myriad of employees of Winnipeg Child and Family Services who had contact with Phoenix Sinclair or her family during her lifetime."

George Derwin, lawyer for the girl's foster mother, Kim Edwards, and her biological father, Steve Sinclair, said they want to know how she could have fallen through the cracks.

Edwards acted more like Phoenix's real mother, Derwin told the inquiry. She worked frantically to try to get her back from Kematch and arranged her funeral afterwards.

"She has been the voice of Phoenix Sinclair, tirelessly lobbying to make sure this very inquiry takes place," he said. "She has many unanswered questions."

But Derwin said Edwards doesn't want the inquiry to simply rehash Phoenix's short life.

"I keep hearing 'tragic death.' That is not what Kim Edwards says," he said. "We're here for a spirit of renewal. We're here to celebrate her life and ensure that something positive comes of it."

Hughes was expected rule on the standing applications Wednesday. The inquiry is to begin in earnest in the fall with a report due to the provincial government by March 30.