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Petition to free 2 Sask. Indigenous sisters gains momentum

The petition to free Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance is trending in the criminal justice category on change.org
NerissaOdelia
Quewezance sisters, Nerissa, left, and Odelia, say they were wrongfully convicted of murder.

SASKATCHEWAN – A petition to free two Indigenous Saskatchewan sisters is gaining traction on change.org with 17, 511 signatures as of March 16.

According to change.org newsletter, the petition to free Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance is trending in the criminal justice category. The petition aims to get 25,000 signatures and will then be given to federal Justice Minister David Lametti who is the only person who can initiate a ministerial review, which could help free the sisters.

Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance have spent almost 30 years in prison after they were sentenced to life on second-degree murder charges in 1994 for Anthony Joseph Dolff's death in Kamsack in 1993.

“We are calling on the Canadian government to release these two women immediately,” reads the petition started by N.A. Porter and Associates.

“We have a responsibility as Canadian citizens to acknowledge the harm done to these indigenous women, and to rectify this miscarriage of justice. They have already served a disproportionately long sentence for a crime that someone else confessed to.

“Transcripts indicated zero physical evidence tying them to the murder that someone else confessed to,” states the petition.

The sisters’ cousin – who was a youth at the time - previously confessed on APTN that he is the one who killed Dolff. The youth was sentenced to only four years in prison.

According to Parole Board of Canada documents obtained by SASKTODAY.ca, Nerissa Quewezance hit Dolff with a porcelain ornament, and the young offender stabbed him and dropped a heavy object on him. The sisters and the young offender then fled in the victim's car.

The parole board documents reveal that the two sisters, aged 18 and 21 at the time, were drinking alcohol with 70-year-old Dolff at his residence.

Neither of the sisters pleaded guilty to the murder and they continue to maintain their innocence. Innocence Canada lawyer James Lockyer represents the sisters.

Retired judges Justice Harry LaForme and Justice Juanita Westmoreland-Traore – who were appointed by federal Justice Minister David Lametti in 2021 to head the creation of an independent Criminal Case Review Commission to review wrongful convictions - say the conviction of Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance has signs of a miscarriage of justice.

Inter-generational trauma

The sisters have experienced inter-generational trauma from colonialism and have spent almost their entire lives institutionalized in Indian Residential School and then prison. Parole board documents show that the sisters experienced significant physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. According to Nerissa Quewezance’s parole report, one of their parents struggled with substance abuse and died by suicide.

Nerissa Quewezance lived at a halfway house in B.C. after she was granted day parole. She was back in custody on B.C.’s Lower Mainland in December 2021 for violating her parole conditions.

Parole board documents, however, reveal that halfway houses trigger her trauma. 

“The structure of halfway houses is difficult for you as it triggers trauma from your experiences of residential school,” the February 2022 parole board report states.

The petition on change.org says that it’s impossible for the sisters to follow parole restrictions imposed on them, especially considering they suffer from PTSD as residential school survivors.

Odelia Quewezance's parole hearing delayed

Odelia Quewezance is at a healing lodge in Manitoba and her parole hearing on Feb. 25 was adjourned for up to two months. 

Kim Beaudin, Congress of Aboriginal Peoples vice-chief, observed Odelia Quewezance’s parole board hearing by CCTV, which was abruptly ended he said due to Odelia Quewezance emotionally breaking down and crying.

“The parole hearing was unreasonably adjourned for two months, with no new confirmed date,” said Beaudin on March 16. 

The Parole Board of Canada was contacted for the date of Odelia Quewezance's continued hearing. They did not provide a date.

Beaudin said that at Odelia Quewezance’s hearing, a request was read into the record for a ‘geographical restriction’ that, if released on parole, Odelia would not be allowed to enter specific communities in treaty territory in Saskatchewan.

“The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples believe this would be a violation of Odelia’s mobility rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” said Beaudin.

At Nerissa Quewezance’s parole hearing in December 2021, the parole board said the victim’s family had requested that the sisters be prohibited from entering the communities of Yorkton, Kamsack, and Saskatoon.

According to parole board documents, the victim’s family also complained that the two sisters have gone to the media.

“They describe how years of healing work have been erased overnight because of this media engagement,” read the parole board report.

More calls for sisters release

On Wednesday, CAP said they are once again joining other advocates’ calls for the Government of Canada to release Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance immediately.

“Despite a lack of physical evidence and testimony of (the young offender) admitting responsibility for the murder of Anthony Joseph Dolff that landed him with a four-year sentence for second-degree murder, the two women remain behind bars with life sentences,” said Beaudin.

“Odelia and her sister have been through enough,” added Beaudin. “As CAP has called for in the past, they deserve a formal apology and their records expunged. It’s time that the Canadian government owns up to this miscarriage of justice.”

The sisters have also had the support of high-profile advocates including Senator Kim Pate and wrongful conviction advocate David Milgaard, who spent almost 23 years in prison for the rape and murder of Saskatoon nurse Gail Miller in 1969. He was eventually exonerated by DNA evidence, which proved that North Battleford native Larry Fischer raped and murdered Miller.

Senator Pate, during a Zoom conference in May 2021, said she was stunned the sisters haven't been released.

“Someone else confessed. Why there hasn’t been a review of their case is beyond me. There needs to be an immediate review of the convictions of Nerissa and Odelia.”

Getting a fair hearing

Beaudin said he was concerned about Odelia Quewezance getting a fair hearing after he said inaccurate information about Dolff’s relationship with the Quewezance sisters, his employment at St. Philip’s Residential School, and the very existence of the school were read into the record during Odelia Quewezance’s parole hearing in February.

“It is dangerous precedent to allow disinformation of facts to be read into record when it can influence the parole board officials, who are trained from a colonial perspective and where there is no Indigenous representation in the parole process,” said Beaudin.

During a zoom in 2021, Odelia pleaded for her freedom while she held an eagle feather, which is a symbol for honesty in the Indigenous culture.

“We were treated unfairly from the beginning as young Indigenous women living in Saskatchewan," she said. "Someone else has confessed to this horrific murder and still the justice system fails us.”

According to Canada’s prison watchdog, Indigenous women are over-incarcerated and represent the fastest-growing prison population in Canada.

Click here to view the FreeTheSisters petition on change.org The petition also urges people to contact federal Justice Minister David Lametti by email at david.lametti@parl.gc.ca or by telephone at 613-943-6636.

ljoy@glaciermedia.ca