SASKATCHEWAN – Following in David Milgaard’s footsteps, Nerissa Quewezance has picked up his torch, fighting for justice for prisoners.
In a poignant continuation of Milgaard’s legacy, Quewezance is challenging the system and calling on the provincial and federal governments to address the over-representation of Indigenous Peoples caught up in the justice system.
“As time went on, the prison system became overcrowded and more and more Indigenous women were filling up the cells,” Nerissa Quewezance told SASKTODAY.ca. “There was no room and our rights to even be treated like people went out the door.”
With echoes of Milgaard's tenacity, her quest for equitable treatment of prisoners is undeterred.
Quewezance reflected on the changes in the prison system over the years since she was first incarcerated in 1994 and said that a sense of solidarity among inmates has diminished, giving way to a stronger influence of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). She believes this shift has contributed to an environment where the rights and humanity of prisoners are often overshadowed.
Nerissa, and her sister Odelia Quewezance, were granted bail earlier this year by Yorkton Court of King’s Bench Justice Donald Layh after spending about 30 years in prison for the 1993 murder of Kamsack-area farmer Anthony Joseph Dolff.
The Quewezance sisters, from Keeseekoose First Nation, were convicted in 1994 of second-degree murder in Dolff’s death and sentenced to life in prison. They have maintained their innocence. A young offender who was with the sisters at the time of the murder – admitted to being the only person who committed the murder – was sentenced in 1994 to only four-years in prison.
The federal government is currently reviewing the sisters’ 1994 convictions as a possible miscarriage of justice.
Innocence Canada lawyer James Lockyer represents Nerissa and Odelia Quewezance. Innocence Canada, an organization dedicated to helping individuals who have been wrongfully convicted, drew parallels between the case of Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance and the wrongful conviction of David Milgaard.
In September 2021, Justices Harry LaForme and Juanita Westmoreland-Traore said the sisters’ convictions are a possible miscarriage of justice and called on the Parole Board of Canada to release them. The two justices were appointed by former Federal Justice Minister David Lametti in 2021 to head the creation of the independent Criminal Case Review Commission [Bill C-40, David and Joyce Milgaard’s Law], to review wrongful convictions.
In addition, Nerissa and Odelia Quewezance have the support of high-profile advocates such as Senator Kim Pate, Innocence Canada, Kim Beaudin from Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, and the late David Milgaard.
Milgaard was the victim of Canada's most notorious miscarriages of justice. In 1969 he was arrested when he was only 16. In 1970, at the age of 17, he was wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering Saskatoon nursing assistant Gail Miller and sent to Canada’s toughest prisons for life. He spent almost 23 years behind bars before he was released in 1992 and exonerated by DNA evidence in 1997.
Before Milgaard’s death on May 15, 2022, he advocated for the wrongfully convicted and pushed for an independent Criminal Case Review Commission to make it easier and faster for potentially wrongfully convicted people to have their applications reviewed. Milgaard also spoke against Canada’s punitive justice system and advocated for a restorative justice system. Milgaard’s advocacy gained him national recognition. In 2020 – 50 years after his wrongful conviction - the University of Manitoba presented him with an Honorary Doctor of Law degree.
In June 2021, Milgaard told SASKTODAY.ca that he was retiring from his advocacy work but – right until he took his last breath – he continued to fight for Nerissa and Odelia Quewezance’s exoneration and release from prison.
Transcripts of Nerissa and Odelia Quewezance's 1994 trial obtained by SASKTODAY.ca reveal that Dolff knew the sisters from St. Phillips residential school where he worked and the sisters were students. Court transcripts show that Dolff was trying to be physically intimate with Odelia Quewezance the night of his murder and that Odelia Quewezance had stolen a small amount of money from his bedroom.
Odelia Quewezance had testified that she was in the front seat of a vehicle with Dolff, and a young offender we will call Jack, was in the back seat with Nerissa, and that “Nerissa and Jack were screaming.”
Nerissa Quewezance had testified that as they were headed back to Dolff’s house, Jack had said to her, “Let’s kill him.” And she responded, “Shami.” She said she tried jumping out of the vehicle but couldn’t because Jack was by one door and the other door was covered with boxes and garbage bags.
“We turned around on the highway. I wanted to jump out of the car because I knew he would find out who took the money. Jack said, ‘Let’s kill him.’ I don’t know what made him say that. It’s only money anyway. I said, ‘Shami.’ That means don’t get worse in Saulteaux.”
Jack testified that Nerissa Quewezance tried to push him out of the vehicle to prevent him from harming Dolff.
“She opened the door and he was going pretty fast and she tried to push me out and I wasn’t ready. She didn’t want me to do it. Nerissa said she was getting nervous, then she was saying ‘no’ and she said ‘shami I’m getting worse or something,’” testified Jack.
Court heard that Nerissa Quewezance had no memory of what happened between the incident in the car and when the violence broke out after they arrived back at Dolff’s home. The sisters had consumed a large amount of drugs and alcohol.
“I kind of blacked out because I don’t remember too clearly. I remember him, Joe, pulling me around and swinging at me. I was trying to fight back. Somebody hit Joe with a cassette player. He had blood on his face. Jack is crazy in the head. If he wouldn’t have taken those knives nothing would have happened but he had to take those knives."
Jack testified that he said, “Let’s kill him,” because he “didn’t want to get in any more trouble.”
In direct examination, Odelia Quewezance testified she didn’t know how it started but said that Dolff was hitting Nerissa so she got involved. Nerissa may have said, “Help me,” but Odelia Quewezance doesn’t remember for sure. She remembers she saw Dolff hit Nerissa Quewezance but she didn’t know with what.
Under cross-examination, Odelia Quewezance said, “I got involved when Mr. Dolff bothered my sister. He grabbed her.”
Court documents show that Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance hit Dolff with a kettle and Odelia threw an ornament at him.
“Jack gave me a small knife,” testified Nerissa Quewezance. “I threw it down. I knew I didn’t take the other knife. Jack was hitting him. I don’t know why he (was) trying to deny it.”
Court heard Odelia Quewezane and Jack chased Dolff into his bedroom. Nerissa Quewezance didn’t follow.
When Jack was stabbing Dolff, Odelia Quewezance testified that by that time she was in the other bedroom with Nerissa, and she said Nerissa was crying.
Court heard that just before midnight on Feb. 24, 1993, Dolff had picked up 18-year-old Nerissa Quewezance, 20-year-old Odelia Quewezance, and 15-year-old Jack on the highway near Keeseekoose First Nation and took them to his nearby rural home.
That’s when everything went wrong.
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