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Judge orders temporary ban on Quewezance sisters' hearing

"I would like to have media there for everybody to know,” said Odelia Quewezance. “Me and my sister were wrongfully convicted, spent 30 years of our lives in prison. Even animals don’t get locked up like that.”

YORKTON - “I’m very excited, it’s been a long time coming,” said Odelia Quewezance, anxiously waiting for her sister, Nerissa, to arrive in front of the Yorkton Courthouse on the morning of Nov. 24. “I haven’t seen her since my late father’s funeral and that’s almost 18 years today.”

An RCMP vehicle pulls up on the street, and an officer escorts Nerissa - bound by handcuffs and leg shackles - to her older sister for their first embrace in almost two decades.

This was a day where the Quewezance sisters had intended to appear for a bail hearing, however, after a request for a publication ban on materials intended to be presented at that hearing, the day in court took on a very different theme.

Crown attorney Kelly Kaip made application for the publication ban on evidence of the hearing, noting that such bans are made daily in court. Her position was that information reported by media sources could possibly influence a future jury

The Quewezance sisters’ lawyer James Lockyer opposed the ban, noting that the media is an important tool in wrongful convictions and that the public is entitled to know things as they happen with regard to such cases. He was also “troubled by what seems to be a patronizing position by the Crown.”

Kaip assured that the Crown was not taking an adversarial or paternalistic role, but stressed the importance of preserving the process itself. She added how the concerns of the press are understandable, asking for a temporary ban and not a permanent order. At one point, she raised the concern of perhaps having a publication ban on the proceedings at hand, that litigation should occur in the courtroom as opposed to on the front steps.

Justice Donald Layh ultimately decided on a “temporary interim publication ban” on any written materials filed since Sept. 2022. He didn’t find what was discussed in court on Nov. 24 as evidentiary, and those proceedings are protected from a publication ban. 

Lawyers from APTN and CBC also weighed in via telephone. 

Bob Sokalski, representing APTN, supported Lockyer’s submissions, noting that publication bans on cases such as this “only keeps Indigenous people marginalized.”

Sean Sinclair, representing the CBC, offered several questions including how the rights of the Quewezance sisters to a hearing factor into the publication ban request, adding that they have a right to a public hearing.

The Quewezance sisters were convicted in 1994 for killing Anthony Joseph Dolff a year earlier - a crime they maintain they did not commit, and one that their cousin, who was a youth at the time, confessed to perpetrating. 

“I would like to have media there for everybody to know,” said Odelia. “Me and my sister were wrongfully convicted, spent 30 years of our lives in prison. Even animals don’t get locked up like that.”

Community and family members observed the court proceedings from the gallery as the Quewezance sisters - and the RCMP officer who earlier escorted Nerissa - sat in the jury box.

“The community supports the sisters. They’ve served a considerable amount of time,” said Keeseekoose First Nation Chief Lee Kitchemonia. “There was someone who admitted to the crime, and they’ve [the sisters] always maintained their innocence. I really hope the Quewezance sisters get a fair deal and justice is served.”

The sisters were overwhelmed by the support from their community.

“I feel honoured that they’re here, our Chief and Council are reaching out to us,” said Nerissa. “More of our Aboriginal people need to help. Hopefully this is the start for everybody to start reaching out to us Native people - especially Aboriginal women in prison. A lot of my sisters are still suffering in penitentiaries. A lot of injustices still, and I hope that this helps the women inside.”

“We’re survivors,” said Nerissa. ”Me and my sister are survivors.”

The case even found mention in provincial proceedings Thursday as opposition Justice critic Nicole Sarauer confronted the Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Bronwyn Eyre, about the potential miscarriage of justice. While noting the awareness of a federal review currently underway in the case, Eyre said, “these convictions were upheld at the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court decided not to hear the case,” concluding that it would be “inappropriate” for her to comment further.

The bail hearing has been rescheduled to Jan. 17, 2023.

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