Sisters claiming wrongful imprisonment have ‘surreal’ reunion at courthouse 18 years after conviction

Sisters claiming wrongful imprisonment have ‘surreal’ reunion at courthouse 18 years after conviction

A pair of Indigenous sisters who have been apart for nearly two decades for a crime they are adamant they didn’t commit tearfully reunited Thursday in Yorkton, Sask., embracing on the grounds of the Court of King’s Bench.

In 1994, Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance were convicted of second-degree murder in the death of Anthony Dolff, a farmer from Kamsack, Sask.

They last saw each other nearly 18 years ago at their late father’s funeral.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Odelia, 51, said Thursday. “It’s pretty sad that it had to take this to be together, to see each other … they kept us separated.”

Later, as Odelia spoke outside the courthouse, she began to cry.

“I haven’t seen her for 18 years, like how can they do that?” she said.

“We’re not violent … we have big hearts.”

Sisters claiming wrongful imprisonment have 'surreal' reunion at courthouse 18 years after conviction
Odelia Quewezance, 51, stands on the steps where she and her sister were once convicted of a murder they maintain they did not commit. She recalled looking out from some of the top windows nearly three decades ago. (Dayne Patterson/CBC)

The sisters are from Keeseekoose First Nation, located about 230 kilometres northeast of Regina. They maintain they’ve been wrongfully imprisoned for Dolff’s death for nearly 30 years, including time spent in custody before the convictions.

Thursday’s reunion happened in front of the courthouse where they were first convicted.

The Quewezance sisters are requesting a conditional release while they await a lengthy federal review of whether their case was a miscarriage of justice.

While the interim judicial review hearing — to determine if the sisters would be allowed certain freedoms while the federal review was underway — was scheduled for Thursday and Friday, it has been replaced by a hearing to discuss whether new details from the hearing should be subject to a publication ban.

The defence, CBC and APTN are opposing the publication ban. 

“Hopefully this is a start for everybody to start reaching out to us Native people, especially Aboriginal women in prison. A lot of my sisters are still suffering … a lot of injustices still,” said Nerissa, 48, during a break in the publication ban hearing.

She said seeing her sister was “surreal” and emotional. The two were allowed to have a meal with each other and family over lunch.

Sisters claiming wrongful imprisonment have 'surreal' reunion at courthouse 18 years after conviction
Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance hug outside of the Yorkton, Sask., courthouse after nearly two decades of being apart. Nerissa was accompanied by an RCMP officer. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Arguments in court

The sisters sat together in court. Nerissa was bound in shackles before Justice Donald Layh allowed a request from the defence to have the restraints removed while in the courtroom.

With Dolff’s family in attendance, Crown prosecutor Kelly Kaip argued a publication ban on a bail hearing was not unusual and would maintain a fair trial in the future if there is one as a result of the federal review.

A federal review could result in an appeal trial or an entirely new trial, or by referring a question of law to the provincial Court of Appeal.

Kaip indirectly addressed criticisms made by advocates, stating the ban would not “muzzle” the media, but did say the media has been favourable of the sisters.

James Lockyer, a defence lawyer for the sisters, said a potential “slant” from media is not a reason to ban publicity of the trial and listed examples of other wrongfully convicted individuals, like the famous case of David Milgaard, and how media coverage was imperative in those cases. 

He said he doesn’t want the bail hearing application “shrouded in a publication ban” and that the sisters’ case is of “massive public interest.”

While the court considers the publication ban, the hearing to determine if the sisters will be granted bail is expected to happen in January.

Justice Layh said he will state his decision on the publication ban next week. 

Support in and outside courthouse

Chief Lee Ketchemonia of Keeseekoose First Nation stood with members of the sisters’ family in the courthouse, advocating for their release.

Ketchemonia said it was shocking when the two sisters initially were charged and convicted in the 1990s.

“I knew them right from when we were children … as chief of our community I’m here to come and help support the sisters,” he said before the hearing.

“Everybody in their family wants to see them released.”

Sisters claiming wrongful imprisonment have 'surreal' reunion at courthouse 18 years after conviction
Chief Lee Ketchemonia, left, and Odelia, right. Ketchemonia said the sisters’ incarceration has been difficult on both friends and family in the community. (Dayne Patterson/CBC)

Other advocates, including an Ontario senator and a vice-chief with the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, are among the chorus of voices that say the sisters are innocent and calling on the Saskatchewan Government to support the sisters’ bail.

Early last week, both Senator Kim Pate and vice-chief Kim Beaudin decried the government’s request for a publication ban as part of an online news conference. Pate called it “absurd.”

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