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Senator slams Sask's 'shameful' treatment of Indigenous people

The failure of Saskatchewan to address systemic discrimination – especially as it impacts Indigenous women – and unwillingness to be held accountable is shameful and unacceptable: Senator Kim Pate.
Senator Kim Pate greets Nerissa Quewezance as she's escorted into Yorkton Court of King's Bench in January 2023.

Indigenous woman Nerissa Quewezance – whose second-degree murder conviction is under review by the federal Justice Department as a possible miscarriage of justice – is back behind bars.

On April 13, Quewezance was arrested in Saskatoon for allegedly breaching her bail conditions. Conditions advocates say are impossible to comply with.

“The release of individuals who have been incarcerated for decades and who do not have the resources to support themselves can add burdens that interfere with their ability to live and work in the community, while also being unnecessarily restrictive where individuals do not pose risks to public safety,” Senator Kim Pate told SaskToday on Thursday.

In March 2023, Nerissa and Odelia Quewezance were granted bail by a Yorkton Court of King’s Bench judge pending the federal Justice Department review of their 1994 second-degree murder convictions.

Senator Pate says Nerissa and Odelia Quewezance should remain out on bail until the federal Ministerial Review of their convictions has been completed.

“The failure of Saskatchewan to address systemic discrimination – especially as it impacts Indigenous women – and unwillingness to be held accountable, is shameful and unacceptable,” said Senator Pate.

The Saskatchewan provincial Crown Prosecutor is opposed to Nerissa Quewezance’s release, and she was remanded in custody after her appearance in Saskatoon Provincial Court on April 17.

“That’s not a surprise, that is how they treat our people,” said Aly Bear, Vice-Chief of the Federation of Indigenous Sovereign Nations' (FSIN), on Thursday.

“What I see here is recidivism. It’s part of the system, the intergenerational trauma, and not enough support for our people who are incarcerated and trying to reintegrate.”

Kim Beaudin, Vice-Chief of Congress of Aboriginal Peoples agreed.

“I don’t have any faith in the Saskatchewan government to do the right thing. That’s the culture they created of division with Indigenous people, and it continues to thrive in the justice system.”

Beaudin called Saskatchewan the Alabama of the North.

Being back behind bars is difficult for Nerissa Quewezance, said her Toronto lawyer from Innocence Canada.

“It will be very difficult for Nerissa to be back in prison,” said defence counsel James Lockyer Thursday. “I am speaking on the phone to her on a daily basis to try to keep her spirits up."

Quewezance sisters maintain innocence

A male youth confessed to the 1993 murder of Kamsack-area farmer Anthony Joseph Dolff. The young offender, who testified that he committed the murder alone, was sentenced to four-years in prison. Nerissa and Odelia Quewezance, of Keeseekoose First Nation, were sentenced to life in prison.

During the 1994 trial, the youth had testified in court that Nerissa Quewezance tried stopping the murder from happening when he was planning it, according to court transcripts obtained by SaskToday.

Sisters have high-profile support

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.

In addition, Justices Harry LaForme and Juanita Westmoreland-Traore said the sisters' case is 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.

If Federal Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, Arif Virani, orders a new trial, then the case will go back to Yorkton Court of King's Bench for a possible new trial. If Virani orders an appeal, then it would go to the Court of Appeal. 

Sisters waiting 31 years to be proven innocent: CAP

Beaudin urged federal Justice Minister Virani to finish the Ministerial Review of the sisters’ 1994 conviction.

“The sisters continue to wait for their chance to finally be exonerated and be released from the clutches of the Federal and Saskatchewan's colonial justice systems,” said Beaudin, in an April 12 letter to Virani obtained by SaskToday.

“For over 31 years, the sisters have waited to be proven innocent. They deserve to have their case heard as soon as possible after so many unacceptable delays. Both sisters' current freedoms are extremely limited, and they continue to have a black cloud over them as the wheels of the federal justice system turn at a snail's pace.”

It isn't certain how long the federal review will take.

“I do not know how much longer the ministerial review will take, but it will not be completed in the near future,” said Lockyer.

The federal Department of Justice confirmed the sisters’ application is still under review.

“As we indicated in our response to you last July, the Quewezance sisters’ application is currently under review,” Ian McLeod, Communications, Department of Justice, told SaskToday in an email Thursday. “For privacy reasons, we cannot provide further details about the review or about a timeline.”

Senator Pate said she hopes the federal Minister of Justice will act soon.

“Lengthy waits are heartbreakingly painful for those who must endure such long delays, particularly after decades of incarceration.”

Quewezance needs addictions treatment, not jail: Advocates

Beaudin said Nerissa Quewezance should have been directed to a 24-hour addictions facility for lengthy treatment when she was released on bail.

“She is struggling with addictions since she came out of (prison) and it’s affecting her big time,” he said, adding that she became addicted to illicit drugs while in prison.

He said that he asked the Saskatoon Tribal Council to help with programming for Nerissa Quewezance, but they refused to help because she was on bail.

SaskToday reached out to the Saskatoon Tribal Council for comment, but they didn’t immediately respond.

Beaudin said that he also reached out to the provincial prosecution office, trying to get Nerissa Quewezance addictions treatment.

“I told them she needs help, she needs addictions programming in a structured environment, but this province is so racist, so discriminatory, they won’t. They are steadfast in wanting to keep her in prison, in the clutches of corrections. They had no solutions and no way to compromise on anything.”

SaskToday contacted the Director of Prosecutors in Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Justice and Attorney General’s office for comment. Public prosecutions said because the matter is still before the courts they will not be providing any comment at this time.

Senator Pate said prisons are full of people whom every other system has failed.

“Many emerge with additional challenges in terms of no place to live or way to support themselves, not to mention dislocation from families and communities, unresolved past trauma that is also often compounded by the prison experience. The use of medication to dull the pain of past trauma as well as prison experiences can both generate and exacerbate mental health and addiction issues.

“If the court directed that resources be provided for such community supports rather than punishing her the lack of supports available, that could be a very positive outcome,” added Senator Pate. “These issues are part of why we seek the systemic review advocated by our 12 Women Report and Bill S-230 and S-233."

Racial and gender bias

Senators Kim Pate, Dawn Anderson, and Yvonne Boyer co-authored a report released in May 2022 calling for the exoneration and review of cases for 12 Indigenous women as possible miscarriages of justice because of gender and racial bias.

Two of the 12 women featured in the report (identified as O.Q. and N.Q.) are sisters imprisoned since 1994 for a murder that someone else confessed to committing. The sisters said the residential school caretaker made sexual advances at them and a youth had confessed to the killing, but they were convicted of second-degree murder. The report doesn’t name the sisters, but the details of their case are parallel with Nerissa and Odelia Quewezance’s case.

Transcripts of the 1994 trial reveal that Dolff knew the sisters from St. Phillip's residential school where he worked and Odelia and Nerissa attended as students.

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