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Justice (25-42)

‘We’re survivors’: Quewezance sisters reunite at Saskatchewan court

November 24, 2022
Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance hug outside a Yorkton courthouse. The sisters haven’t met in person since 2004. Photo: Brent McGillvray/APTN. 

APTN News: Despite the shackles on her wrists and ankles, Nerissa Quewezance leaned into her older sister’s arms Thursday.

It was their first hug in 18 years.

“My sister,” Odelia Quewezance said soothingly as she embraced Nerissa in front of the Yorkton, Sask., courthouse.

The lone RCMP officer who transported Nerissa, 48, to Yorkton from custody in Saskatoon looked on with a smile. Nerissa arrived in Saskatchewan from her women’s prison in B.C. on Wednesday.

The Saulteaux sisters, who were convicted of killing a white Saskatchewan farmer in the same courthouse 30 years ago, hadn’t met in person since their father’s funeral in 2004.

They were reunited to attend a court hearing related to a possible miscarriage of justice in their case.

“I’m feeling a little nervous and emotional,” said Odelia, 50, who is on day parole. “But I’m ready today.”

publication ban
Nerissa, left, and Odelia Quewezance outside the Yorkton courthouse. Photo: Holly Moore/APTN.

The two walked into the King’s Bench courtroom wearing traditional First Nations ribbon skirts. They were seated side by side in the jury box next to the female Mountie.

Justice Donald Layh was originally scheduled to hear their application for bail pending a federal review of their second-degree murder convictions of 1994. Instead, he heard arguments about what the media should be allowed to report after the Crown attorney requested a discretionary publication ban on the evidence to be presented at the new bail hearing on Jan. 17-18.

Listening from the front row of the courtroom was the granddaughter of murder victim Anthony Joseph Dolff, who was brutally beaten and stabbed to death in his Kamsack-area home in 1993.

The Quewezance sisters were at Dolff’s farmhouse the night of the murder with their cousin, Jason Keshane, who said he was the one who killed Dolff.

Keshane confessed to the crime at the sisters’ 1994 trial but the members of Keeseekoose First Nation were still convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison with parole a possibility after 10 years. They weren’t automatically released from prison after Keshane was convicted and sentenced to five years.

Fast-forward to November 2020 and the television documentary A Life Sentence airs on APTN Investigates. The episode shows Keshane confessing to Dolff’s killing again – this time on camera.

The report raises questions about a possible wrongful conviction and the participation of Innocence Canada.

“Their case is an important part of truth and reconciliation relevant to our country,” the sisters’ lawyer, James Lockyer, told Layh Thursday.

“That’s a human story that the media should be able to report.”

Lockyer, who co-founded the non-profit organization Innocence Canada, said his clients opposed the publication ban.

The federal Justice Department’s Criminal Conviction Review Board (CCRB) has already said – following a preliminary review – that there may be grounds for a possible miscarriage of justice in the Quewezance case.

But Crown attorney Kelly Kaip asked to keep the evidence she presents at the bail hearing under wraps.

Layh heard this was an unusual request from the Crown. Typically, it is the defence that seeks a publication ban.

He reserved his decision until next week.

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The Quewezance sisters walked into court wearing ribbon skirts. Nerissa was still shackled at the wrists and ankles. Photo: Kathleen Martens/APTN.

In the meantime, the judge imposed “a temporary interim publication ban” on written materials submitted for the bail hearing. The documents, which are usually public, were denied to APTN News when requested in October.

As Nerissa stroked Odelia’s long, dark hair in the jury box, Lockyer said the Crown’s request seemed “patronizing.”

The lawyer, who has overturned numerous wrongful convictions, suggested Kaip didn’t like the media coverage so far and how it seemed “slanted in favour of” the Quewezance sisters.

“The media is an important tool in many cases of wrongful conviction,” Lockyer said.

He noted the Crown was opposed to his clients being released on bail and the federal review of their case.

But Kaip explained she was trying to protect the integrity of a new trial if the review called for one.

The CCRB can order a new trial, refer the case to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal or quash the convictions.

The “publicity juggernaut so far has focused on the claims of Nerissa and Odelia,” said Kaip, who had to prove to the court that a publication ban and sealing order were necessary.

“But publicizing the evidence now could taint a potential jury pool and the possibility of a fair trial.”

Media lawyers for APTN News and CBC News told court the Crown’s position was confusing. They said her argument didn’t warrant banning the media from reporting on a case it had been following closely since 2020.

“Everybody out there is talking about this case,” said APTN lawyer Bob Sokalski, who presented his argument via phone. “APTN opposes all bans.”

The Canadian Association of Journalists, an advocacy group for journalists and their reporting, released a statement Wednesday calling on the province of Saskatchewan and its minister of justice to withdraw the application for a publication ban.

“In Canada, open courts and freedom of the press are foundational values that are embedded in our legal and cultural understanding of how effective systems should work,” said president Brent Jolly.

“Imposing restrictions that institute a ‘proverbial cone of silence’ prevents the public from properly scrutinizing the merits of the case.”

‘If there’s an advantage to have the media present, I think that they should be allowed,’ says Keeseekoose First Nation Chief Lee Kitchemonia. Photo: Brent McGillvray/APTN.

Supporters of the sisters agreed. An open court is important when it comes to recording how Indigenous peoples are treated, said Keeseekoose Chief Lee Kitchemonia.

“A lot of times First Nations people, they tend to get a raw deal when it comes to a lot of the justice in Saskatchewan, and I think that has to change,” he said in an interview outside court.

“If there’s an advantage to have the media present, I think that they should be allowed.”

Even Nerissa, who spoke to reporters during a court break alongside her sister, asked First Nations organizations to support their court fight.

“We’re survivors, Odelia and I. (But) we need help,” she said.

Meanwhile, in Regina, two hours southwest of Yorkton, Saskatchewan’s justice minister was asked in the legislature whether the province would cooperate with federal officials during the review of the Quewezance case.

Bronwyn Eyre didn’t answer the question from NDP-MLA Nicole Sarauer (Regina Douglas Park), the Opposition critic for justice.

“We are aware that there’s a federal review currently underway in this case, Mr. Speaker,” Eyre said during Question Period, “and we must let that take its course.

“Of course, these convictions were upheld at the (Saskatchewan) Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court (of Canada) decided not to hear the case, and it would be inappropriate for me, Mr. Speaker, to comment further.”