OTTAWA, Ont. - Two retired judges heading the creation of a commission to review wrongful convictions say the conviction of Saskatchewan sisters Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance has signs of a miscarriage of justice and are calling on the Parole Board of Canada to release them.
Justice Harry LaForme and Justice Juanita Westmoreland-Traore were appointed by federal Justice Minister David Lametti to lead consultations for the establishment of an independent Criminal Case Review Commission to look into cases of potentially wrongfully convicted people. The Saskatchewan sisters’ case has been brought to their attention.
“It strongly suggested to us that this had many indicia of a miscarriage of justice given that the sisters were still imprisoned while someone had confessed to the crime, served his sentence, and was now free of prison,” said Justice Harry LaForme in an interview today.
“Throughout our consultations we heard, over and over, especially Senator Kim Pate and Innocence Canada, the circumstances of Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance,” said Justice LaForme.
Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance were sentenced to life in prison on second-degree murder charges in 1994 for the death of 70-year-old Anthony Joseph Dolff of Kamsack. They continue to maintain their innocence.
Last year, Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance’s younger cousin told APTN Investigates that he killed Dolff. He was 14 at the time of the crime and was convicted of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to two years.
“Our concern was, in all the circumstances, what are the interests of justice that are served after 29 years in prison, by their continued imprisonment? We felt it deserved a review and the release of the sisters while that was proceeding,” said Justice LaForme.
Senator Pate welcomes judges’ backing
Senator Kim Pate has been advocating on the sisters behalf and welcomed the two judges’ support of the Quewezance sisters.
“It was wonderful Justice LaForme and Justice Westmoreland-Traore both weighed in on the situation that Odelia and Nerissa face,” said Senator Pate in a phone interview today.
Senator Pate said the sisters’ cousin had confessed to the killing.
“This really calls into question why the police and crown prosecutor - knowing that he had confessed, because he confessed back when he was a young person - why they proceeded to continue with the trial and the second-degree murder conviction.”
She said they should have withdrawn the charges at that stage, or proceeded with an assault charge if they thought that was legitimate.
“My personal view, because of (the sisters) past history of abuse and because they were responding to sexual overtures that were made toward them, they were likely responding in self-defence or defence of each other at the time they acted.”
Dept. of Justice holds wrongfully convicted hostage: David Milgaard
Likewise, David Milgaard, who was the victim of one of Canada's most notorious miscarriages of justice and now advocates for the wrongfully convicted, also welcomed the judges’ support of the Quewezance sisters.
“I really like the fact that they came forward and they are fighting to see Odelia and Nerissa freed,” said Milgaard in a phone interview today.
Milgaard was arrested in 1969 at age 16 and wrongfully convicted in 1970 of raping and murdering Saskatoon nurse Gail Miller. He was released in 1992 and exonerated in 1997 by DNA evidence, which identified North Battleford resident Larry Fisher as the person who committed the rape and murder.
“Right now the justice departments are continuing to hold, not only Odelia and Nerissa, but all the wrongfully convicted in Canada hostage,” said Milgaard.
“In Odelia and Nerissa’s case there is a confession on national television,” he added.
“The reason that they do this is to avoid the embarrassment and the shame of having made the mistake that they have. They try to apply rules and measures and keep these people locked in prison even though they have been identified as having miscarriage of justice.”
Milgaard said it’s “horrible” that wrongful convictions are taking place in Canada.
“This is not justice this is just wrong.”
Milgaard said all who have been wrongfully convicted should be compensated financially and given apologies.
“They should be apologized to by the minister of justice and the prime minister of Canada,” he said, adding this would go a long way in helping the sisters heal.
“It’s so important for a wrongfully convicted person to know that people know the truth, and Canadians know the truth, about their situation,” said Milgaard.
“That’s what hurts the most, is no one believes you. No one believes you no matter how much you try to tell people. They need to heal and this is how they can heal.”
Senator Pate said Odelia and Nerissa are more concerned about being home than financial compensation.
“With all of the women I know, particularly with Odelia and Nerissa, they just want to be in the community and with their family. That’s their first priority. I have never heard them talk about compensation.
“My personal view is of course compensation is appropriate when decades of their lives have been stolen from them, and often long before the prison sentence in the form of residential schools and involvement in the youth system.”
She said the state removal of Indigenous children into the child welfare system and residential schools were a fast track for Indigenous people into the prison system.
More wrongfully convicted Indigenous women
Senator Pate said the way the Quewezance sisters were treated by the legal system underscores why Indigenous women are the fastest growing prison population in Canada.
She said she also had discussions with Justice LaForme and Justice Westmoreland-Traore about more Indigenous women she believes have been wrongfully convicted, adding there are at least a dozen she is aware of whose cases need to be reviewed.
“Indigenous women form, depending on whose figures you use, at least 42 per cent and as high 44 per cent of the federal jail population and yet they are fewer than 4 to 5 per cent of the Canadian population,” said Senator Pate.
“This really tells you that this is linked to the same injustices that we are focusing on when we talk about residential schools and when we talk about missing and murdered Indigenous women and when the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) talks about the injustices faced by some Indigenous people, particularly women, in this country.”
Kim Beaudin, national vice-chief of Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) has been calling on the federal government to intervene and release the two sisters who have served almost three decades in prison for a murder they say they didn’t commit.
Beaudin has attributed systemic racism in Saskatchewan to the sisters’ conviction and continued imprisonment.
“Saskatchewan is the Alabama of the north. It’s a nickname this province has earned.”