Indigenous sisters hope for exoneration after almost 30 years in prison system
Justice minister orders murder conviction review over possible miscarriage of justice
Warning: This story contains distressing details.
Odelia Quewezance and her sister, Nerissa Quewezance, have maintained their innocence ever since they were convicted of second-degree murder in a 1993 killing in Saskatchewan.
Now, after almost 30 years of incarceration, Odelia says the federal Justice Department's recent decision to review their case felt like her "prayers were being answered" — but freedom is still out of reach.
"I'm grateful for the good news from my lawyer, from the Justice Minister [David] Lametti," said Odelia, a Keeseekoose woman who is on day parole, living in a halfway house and subject to certain restrictions.
"But I just, I still think, why am I not out today? And, you know … I'm going to say this today. It's maybe because I'm Indigenous," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.
In 1993, 70-year-old farmer Anthony Joseph Dolff picked up Odelia and Nerissa — then aged 20 and 18, respectively — from their home on Keeseekoose First Nation and took them to his nearby home in the area of Kamsack, Sask., about 230 kilometres northeast of Regina. They were accompanied by the women's 14-year-old cousin, whose name is subject to a publication ban, due to his age at the time.
Dolff propositioned the women after a night of drinking, which led to a confrontation with their cousin. Dolff was stabbed, strangled with a phone cord and had a television thrown on his head. He died at the scene.
The women's cousin has admitted numerous times to killing the older man, including during the ensuing trial, and to an APTN investigation.
But all three were convicted of second-degree murder in 1994.
As a minor, the women's cousin served four years in custody. The sisters received life sentences. Odelia is now living in a halfway house in Winnipeg, while Nerissa is still incarcerated in B.C.'s Fraser Valley.
Late last year, the Office of the Correctional Investigator noted that Indigenous women make up 50 per cent of women in federal prisons, a percentage that has been rising, when Indigenous women make up about five per cent of Canadian women.
WATCH | Half the female population in Canada's federal prisons are Indigneous women:
Odelia has spent much of her life institutionalized, from being forced to attend residential school as a child to being imprisoned at 21. She is also a survivor of sexual abuse, and described her decades in the prison system as "a battle."
"I was a lost person, lost lady, and it was tough, hard on the head," she said.
"I've also attempted, like, suicide because, you know, I did not belong here. It was faith that kept me going."
Neither sister has seen the other in person in almost 19 years, since their father's funeral. But Odelia said they've found ways to be strong for each other.
"No one can understand how we feel, but me and her."
Sisters were victims of systemic racism: lawyer
Late last year, the sisters' Toronto-based lawyer, James Lockyer, wrote to Lametti seeking a review of their sentences.
In early June, he received a letter written on behalf of Lametti that stated that "there may be a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred" in the sisters' case. The matter would be taken under review, the letter said.
"If [the minister] decides in fact there was [a miscarriage of justice], then he has the power of either quashing the conviction himself or referring it back to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal for reconsideration as an appeal," said Lockyer, a lawyer with Innocence Canada, a non-profit organization that advocates for exonerating people convicted of crimes they did not commit.
The letter came the same day that Odelia took part in a news conference on Parliament Hill to protest her and Nerissa's innocence.
Lockyer took on the case at the request of David Milgaard, who spent 23 years in prison for a 1969 rape and murder he didn't commit. Milgaard died last month, but had become a friend to the Quewezance sisters and an advocate for having their case reviewed.
Lockyer said that the original prosecution's case depended on a series of statements the sisters had given to RCMP officers in Kamsack, but those statements were never properly recorded, despite recording equipment being available.
He said the RCMP also ignored a judge's order to move the women to a nearby provincial jail, and instead kept them in Kamsack for five days of interviews.
"Perhaps not surprisingly, the statements became more and more incriminating, so that by the end of it, Nerissa and Odelia supposedly had acknowledged some kind of involvement in the stabbing by the cousin," Lockyer told Galloway.
Lockyer said what role they played was never fully defined in court.
"They're victims of systemic racism in the police investigation and the police conduct. In my view they're victims of systemic discrimination in terms of how their trial proceeded."
In a statement to The Current, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice said that after further examination, "Public Prosecutions did not find a basis to reconsider the verdicts outside the federal review process." The statement added that it is co-operating with that review, and is "in the course of providing disclosure to the reviewing authorities."
Lockyer said the ministry declined to share Crown or police files with him, so "for them to say they are co-operating with anyone is what I might call a misnomer, to be polite."
The RCMP declined to comment, citing the ongoing review process and the possibility it "may include consultation with police agencies involved in the case."
Lametti turned down an interview request from The Current, citing the ongoing review. In an emailed statement, he said his decision on the sisters' case will be made "on the basis of the facts and the law."
He acknowledged the review system needs improvement, and said there is work underway to create a new independent criminal case review commission.
More broadly, the minister said that "systemic discrimination and racism are a reality for too many in Canada's criminal justice system," and pointed to the federal government's Bill C-5, which would remove 21 minimum mandatory sentence requirements "that unfairly affect Indigenous people, as well as Black and marginalized Canadians."
Bill C-5 only 'tinkers' with problem: senator
Last month, Sen. Kim Pate said that Bill C-5 strikes down fewer than half of Canada's 67 mandatory minimum penalties, and is only "tinkering" with the problems that lead to Indigenous women being overrepresented in Canada's prison system.
She told The Current that where a mandatory minimum sentence applies, a judge might not have the opportunity to review the full context of the case, and its circumstances.
"If we really want to address this issue, we have to take much clearer steps to ensure that judges have the opportunity to do their job," she said.
Pate was one of three senators to co-author a report last month that called for the exoneration and group case review of 12 incarcerated Indigenous women. She said their cases "exemplify the systemic issues that ... need to be rectified."
LISTEN | Calls to end overrepresentation of Indigenous women in Canada's jails:
The Quewezance sisters are among those 12 women, one of whom has died since the report was compiled.
"We all have different stories, different cases, but I honestly believe that we were all convicted because of racism," said Odelia.
"It saddens me. It saddens my heart because — 30 years of my life."
Link to the full report on Injustices and Miscarriages of Justices Experienced by 12 Indigenous Women: <a href="https://t.co/AFLx6exL6H">https://t.co/AFLx6exL6H</a><a href="https://twitter.com/DavidLametti?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@DavidLametti</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/SenatorBoyer?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@SenatorBoyer</a> & Senator Anderson <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TRC?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TRC</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/MMIWG?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#MMIWG</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/reconciliACTION?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#reconciliACTION</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SenCA?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SenCA</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/cdnpoli?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#cdnpoli</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/cdnmedia?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#cdnmedia</a> <a href="https://t.co/k4eJUZ0ns2">pic.twitter.com/k4eJUZ0ns2</a>—@KPateontheHill
Lockyer said he'd like to see "a public inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous women by the justice system," and thinks exoneration for the Quewezance sisters could prompt calls for one.
The minister's decision "may well take a year, two years, three years," Lockyer said. While the timeframe is unclear, the decison could give Odelia and Nerissa the right to seek release on bail.
To Odelia, exoneration would mean "justice, finally," and freedom.
After three decades, she worries that "it's going to take a lot to get back to being used to being free."
"But it'll be a sign from David Milgaard because this is what he wanted. And this is what I know we deserve, because me and my sister don't belong in prison."
Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC Indigenous. Produced by Enza Uda.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
If you or someone you know is struggling with issues related to suicide, here's where to get help:
Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text).
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), live chat counselling on the website.
Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre.
This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you're worried about.