Current Problems

Justice (25-42)

My visit with Odelia Quewezance — jailed for a murder she says she didn’t commit — stirs up hope but opens old wounds

March 26, 2023

Quewezance, convicted with her sister in a killing her cousin confessed to, may be on the cusp of freedom. Why a visit to her home stirred old emotions.

The Toronto Star: RHEIN, Sask.Odelia Quewezance knew she had to stay strong, at least for a few more weeks. The slender 51- year-old Salteaux woman smiled often at her family and at me as she spoke. But reaching across the table to touch her 15-year-old daughter Katelyn’s cascading hair — which she has not been able to do for most of her child’s life — Odelia’s smile faded. 

“My twins are all grown up. It is so unfair.”

Odelia oscillated between hope and despair as she shared her life story with me in interviews over three days, with her “spiritual mother,” Indigenous activist Rose Henry, 64, by her side. I had long wanted to meet Odelia, a woman who had kept her family together in the face of fierce judicial resistance, crippling trauma and unbearable distance. So, as her potential freedom approached, I made my first visit to the unforgiving Prairie once farmed by my English ancestors, not realizing the amount of baggage I had taken with me.

Tall and still strikingly youthful, despite lines of worry on her face, Odelia showed us photos of the halfway houses she has called home in Regina, over the past few months, rife with waste, insects and drugs. One night, she awoke to find an addict rummaging through a garbage can in the hallway, and another night, a woman overdosing. For family visits, Odelia needs to find a ride for 230 kilometres over rural roads to see her partner and children who live in Rhein.

“I don’t understand why I have to live with criminals.” 

Weekend leaves are a lifeline for Odelia. She and her sister Nerissa have spent 30 years in custody for a crime they say they didn’t commit. Nerissa remains behind bars in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, but Odelia lives in transitional custody in Regina. Time with her family fosters her hope and strength for the day when she can be the woman she longs to be. 

“I just want to be a real mother to my children,” she said.

In a court on Monday in Yorkton, Sask., Odelia and Nerissa will hear whether they will be released on bail after decades in prison for a murder that someone else has confessed to.

But that evening as I hugged Odelia tight, I wondered how Canada could ever reconcile with the thousands of Indigenous women who have suffered the unimaginable pain of residential schools, poverty, racism and wrongful incarceration. How could I, whose ancestors had lived alongside hers, ever reconcile with Odelia? 

A life sentence for murder

Odelia and her sister Nerissa were sentenced to life in prison in 1994 for second-degree murder in the killing of Joseph Dolff near their home in Keeseekoose First Nation, a Saulteaux Nation in rural Saskatchewan, even though a younger cousin has admitted multiple times that he — not the sisters — killed the 70-year-old.

The cousin, who was 14 at the time, confessed at his trial and in an investigation by Indigenous broadcaster APTN that he killed Dolff after the older man sexually propositioned them. The cousin admitted stabbing him 17 times, strangling him with a phone cord and throwing a television set onto his head. The federal Justice Department now sees the women’s convictions as a likely miscarriage of justice and is reviewing their cases. 

Defence lawyers are asking for a conditional release with limited conditions for Odelia and Nerissa while the federal reviews proceed. High-profile advocates have supported the sisters, including Kim Beaudin, vice-chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, Ontario Sen. Kim Pate and the late justice advocate David Milgaard, who spent 23 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

As snow brushed against the windows of the family home, Odelia spoke of her lifetime of tragedy and injustice and her hopes for a future as an advocate against racism, sexism and wrongful conviction. Rose Henry held Odelia close and flipped the bird at the camera, her usual pose. “She’s a real warrior,” said Henry. “Her biggest crime is being an Indigenous woman and being exposed to a predator.” 

Henry knew well that Odelia’s torment started generations earlier and pointed to wider injustice that filled me with shame. Indigenous women make up 50 per cent of women in federal prisons, despite making up less than five per cent of the female population, according to a 2021 report from the office of Canada’s correctional investigator. Indigenous people routinely serve longer sentences than non-Indigenous people, under much harsher conditions of confinement.

What all-white jury didn’t hear

Odelia and I were born just months apart in the tumultuous early 1970s. It was a time of activism and hope for the equality of women and Indigenous people. But by the winter of 1993, while I was living glorious and free as a student, Odelia was being held in a concrete cell for four days of questioning by white men at a local RCMP detachment, without a lawyer present. She was just 21.

“I was shy. I couldn’t speak … I couldn’t respond to anger,” Odelia said of herself as a youth.

Our ancestors lived side by side in the late 19th century. My great-grandfather Richard Lake rode an “Indian pony” to acquire a parcel of the Prairie that had been home to Odelia’s Salteaux people. Later family photographs show Odelia’s ancestors posing with my great-grandfather, then Saskatchewan’s third lieutenant-governor. I wonder if he ever asked about their hopes for their great-grandchildren.

The details of Odelia’s family and childhood were not presented to her all-white jury. 

After generations of residential school, Odelia’s parents were too traumatized to parent well. While I walked a block to a school in our tree-lined neighbourhood, Odelia and her sisters were sent to the Le Bret and Marieval residential schools, where more than 750 unmarked graves were found in 2021. Odelia remembers being physically abused and sexually assaulted by a Catholic nun when she was seven. But she didn’t tell anyone about it back then.

“She was a child-care worker,” Odelia said. “I didn’t understand it at all.”

From a young age, Odelia mothered her scrawny, curly-haired younger sisters, Nerissa and Zerlina, finding them food when they were hungry and taking beatings so they wouldn’t have to, she said. From age 16, she worked the streets in Edmonton to provide for 14-year-old Nerissa and prevent her from prostituting herself. Odelia can’t shake the memories of the trauma she witnessed when she was home from residential school and a ward of the child welfare system. She saw one uncle shoot his head off; and she heard the blast as another relative shot himself in the house she was living in, she said.  “I wanted to die sometimes.”

Odelia Quewezance and her daughters Kursten and Katelyn Koch at their home in Rhein, Sask.

Despite their mother’s trauma, Odelia’s 15-year-old daughters, Katelyn and Kursten, are bright, beautiful and full of love for Odelia and their father, Jay Koch, 62, who has stayed with Odelia through decades of heartbreak. Smiles flickering in the firelight of the family’s cosy living room, the girls chimed in as Odelia and Jay spoke with pride of their 23-year-old “brainy” daughter Haley, who attended the University of Regina and now works in Saskatoon.

“Children need love, that’s what it takes,” Odelia said, gazing at Haley’s smiling photo. Odelia and Jay conceived their children during his visits to prison, and she was able to live several years with her daughters at healing lodges when they were babies.

As the adults talk about plans to get Odelia back to her halfway house the next day, the twins speak of their worries about their parents. Their father has been under immense strain raising them mostly on his own, they said. And their parents argue a lot when they are together.

“I hope my mom can get out,” Katelyn said. “I hope my auntie gets out, too.” It was scary to visit their mother in the jail, Kursten said, so they have spent time together mostly on the phone. “I love how she tries really hard for everyone,” she said, taking a sip from her frappuccino. “She wants the best for everyone.”

Odelia was good company over the weekend and trusted me with her hopes and her hurts. Perhaps she took comfort in my friendship with Rose Henry or the story of my opening my home last year to another convicted Indigenous woman.

“You are the only reporter who has come to our house,” she said. I can’t bear to tell her that photos of this land, more than 100 years old, hang in our family gallery.

Along with the horrendous details of her life and time in custody, Odelia spoke of her forgiveness for her cousin and her empathy for Dolff and his family.  “God rest his soul.”

She stood up to hug her daughters, who had changed into black hoodies and were leaving for a party. Like me, also a mother of teenagers, Odelia worried about peer pressure.  “Be safe and call if you want to come home,” she told them. 

Odelia herself drank heavily as a teenager, but it was only in prison that she got into drugs and became an addict, she said. Her prison addictions led her to breach bail conditions and be sent back to jail, she said. “I don’t understand how they think we can get better around all these sick people. “Prison is not rehabilitative. It’s a place that turns people hard.”

Lifting the sleeve of her sweater, she showed the dozens of scars on her forearm where she had slashed herself while in prison: “It took the pain away.” She was taken several times to hospital, she said.

But prison wasn’t all bad, Odelia said. Sen. Kim Pate has been a long-time source of friendship, and Indigenous elders visited and gave her the mother love she had missed.  “The thing that helped me in there was the elders, ceremonies, the sweats and smudging. That’s what got me to where I am today.”

Odelia Quewezance, left, with writer Katharine Lake Berz, whose pasts are intertwined.
Odelia Quewezance says goodbye, again

I left Odelia’s home filled with sorrow and worry about Odelia and her Indigenous community. I hoped my ancestors would never have imagined the torment of the Saulteaux more than a century after razing the land once shared with buffalo.

The next morning, Odelia sat in the back of my rented 4×4 pickup and sobbed. She had just said goodbye to Jay, Kursten and Katelyn and wasn’t sure when she would see them next. As the miles spread between Odelia and her family, she began to tremble and whimper. She shouted at me to stop the truck and stepped out to catch her breath in the frigid air, snow gusting through her hair as her tears fell. 

Katharine Lake Berz is a writer on Vancouver Island and in Toronto. www.lakeberz.comSHARE: