When Nerissa Quewezance was identified by Crime Stoppers as one of Canada’s “Most Wanted” this past summer, the notices – one of which used Old West style lettering and set Ms. Quewezance against cartoon prison bars – included her photo, a detailed physical description and that she was wanted for one of the most concerning and serious of crimes: second-degree murder.
What the wanted posters didn’t mention was that the murder happened in 1993, and that Ms. Quewezance and her sister, Odelia Quewezance, have already served almost 30 years for the crime, despite considerable evidence they were not actually the killers.
“It’s a classic case of why we’ve got so many Indigenous people in jail to me. Classic,” says James Lockyer, a lawyer who works for the wrongfully convicted, and is representing the sisters. “It’s awful. Twenty-nine years later, and they’re still in jail.”
While he and a growing number of advocates strive to have the sisters’ 1994 murder convictions overturned, Mr. Lockyer says the women remain caught in a cycle of parole and reincarceration, related not to substantive new criminal allegations but to parole breaches in a system stacked against them.
Nerissa was 18 and Odelia 21 when they were arrested and charged with second-degree murder in the death of 70-year-old Joseph Dolff, who had been beaten and stabbed to death at his farmhouse northeast of Kamsack, Sask., in February, 1993. The women’s 15-year-old cousin was also charged with murder. (His identity remains protected under the provisions of what was then the Young Offenders Act.)
The sisters, who are Saulteaux, grew up on the Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan, and attended the St. Philip’s residential school, where they were subject to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Mr. Dolff, who they would be accused of killing, worked as a maintenance man at the school.
On the night of Feb. 25, 1993, the sisters had been drinking heavily, consuming significant quantities of beer and whisky provided to them by Mr. Dolff, who himself was not drinking. The sisters and their cousin also took prescription sleeping pills, both orally and by injection.
Court would later hear that at some point in the evening Odelia took money from Mr. Dolff’s bedroom, and the group decided to leave.
Mr. Dolff was driving the sisters and their cousin home when he discovered the money was missing, and returned to his property. There, a violent confrontation ensued, in which Mr. Dolff was beaten, hit with household items and then stabbed to death.
The sisters and their cousin were arrested later that day.
The cousin pleaded guilty to second-degree murder a few months later and was sentenced to four years – 2 1/2 years in custody and 1 1/2 years of supervision – the maximum sentence for a young offender at the time.
The sisters pleaded not guilty, and were tried by a jury in Yorkton early the next year. During the trial, their cousin testified the sisters had participated in the initial assault on Mr. Dolff, but that he was the one who wrapped a phone cord around the man’s neck, dropped a television on his head and ultimately stabbed him to death.
In her testimony, Odelia said Mr. Dolff had been “pestering” her to have sex with him, and showed them a pornographic movie that evening. Odelia said she was sorry for what happened, and that, “Joe was a nice person until he started acting like a pervert, saying all this dirty stuff to us.” She said she got involved in the physical confrontation after Mr. Dolff grabbed Nerissa and her sister called out for help.
“I’m not a violent person,” Odelia said, at the end of her testimony. “And this is really scary.”
Given their cousin’s confession, the sisters’ lawyers urged the all-white jury to either find the women not guilty, or convict them on the lesser charge of manslaughter.
The jury asked two questions during deliberations, both of which had to do with the difference between murder and manslaughter.
After nine hours of deliberations, the jury found both women guilty of murder.
In sentencing, Justice Ellen Gunn said she accepted that the sisters’ cousin had been responsible for the majority of the violence, and believed the sisters were truly remorseful for what happened. Saying the case “presents tragic circumstances for many people,” she sentenced Odelia and Nerissa to life in prison with no chance of parole for 10 years, the shortest period of parole eligibility possible for a murder sentence.
Senator Kim Pate met the Quewezance sisters around the time of their convictions while working for the Elizabeth Fry Society, and has remained in contact with them throughout the past three decades. She is among a group of people pushing for the women’s release, including Mr. Lockyer, private investigator Jolene Johnson, Congress of Aboriginal Peoples’ National Vice-Chief Kim Beaudin, and exoneree-turned-wrongful-conviction-activist David Milgaard.
Ms. Pate said the sisters’ case is “very much a function of the intersections of race, class and gender discrimination,” and that Odelia and Nerissa are among more than a dozen Indigenous women serving life sentences whose cases she thinks should be reviewed.
Unlike many wrongful conviction cases, Ms. Pate says the sisters’ situation is not a matter of overturning a verdict with DNA, but rather questioning the deeper ways the system dealt with the women and considered the situation they faced, asking: “Do the people looking at these cases understand what it’s like to be an Indigenous woman in this circumstance, facing whatever challenge/risk/threat is being imposed? And how do you get out of that, in those circumstances?”
Parole reports describe the sisters growing up in a “dysfunctional” home environment, drinking alcohol from when they were children and starting to take drugs in their early teens, after their mother died by suicide. The sisters attended multiple residential schools, and have both disclosed abuse from early ages.
While exactly what transpired that night is unclear, the sisters’ cousin reiterated to an APTN reporter in a documentary about the case last year that he was the one who stabbed Mr. Dolff to death, and that the women should not be held responsible.
While Ms. Pate and some other supporters would like to see the convictions overturned altogether, Mr. Lockyer takes the position that, since the sisters do appear to have participated in at least part of the attack, convictions for manslaughter may have been appropriate, but that the murder convictions were not.
The difference would have been profound.
If convicted of manslaughter, the women would have received fixed sentences that would have been completed decades ago. Instead, they are serving mandatory life sentences for murder, which means they’re considered to be serving for the rest of their lives. Even if released on parole, “lifers” can be returned to the institution any time if they breach the conditions imposed on them, as has been the case for the Quewezance sisters.
The sisters’ voluminous parole documents clearly show their struggles to navigate a way to freedom.
Though both sisters were long ago found to be at little risk to reoffend violently, they have addiction issues, and their parole breaches are almost universally related to alcohol and drug use or leaving their parole facilities. On one occasion, Nerissa’s parole was revoked after she overdosed and had to be hospitalized. Other incidents that have counted against them in parole records include suicide attempts and ingesting other intoxicants.
Each breach can result in years back in prison before being granted parole again.
Mr. Lockyer says the case – and the fact the sisters are still in custody – is an example of fundamental inequities in the justice and correctional systems, and the discrimination Indigenous people, particularly women, face not only from police and the courts, but also in prison and on parole.
“The treatment by the RCMP and the treatment by the justice system at the front end, and then the treatment by Correctional Service Canada at the other end – I mean, they got the worst of both worlds for the Indigenous,” Mr. Lockyer says. “All you’ve got to do is read the Sinclair report, the Missing and Murdered Women Inquiry report or the newspapers every day and watch the acknowledgement of systemic racism against Indigenous people, especially in the criminal justice system. And if you just look at the case of the two sisters, you go, bingo, that’s exactly what this is.”
Systemic bias in the justice system is well-documented and increasingly recognized. The Globe and Mail investigation Bias Behind Bars found that deeply entrenched discrimination in correctional tools and processes mean Indigenous inmates are, among other things, more likely to have higher security classifications and fewer opportunities to participate in therapeutic or educational programs and treatment, which has a significant impact on parole applications. Mr. Lockyer noted that before Nerissa was arrested for breaching her parole conditions, she had been living freely for two years without any other charges or interactions with police, “demonstrating that she’s more than capable of living in society.”
In his review of the convictions, Mr. Lockyer, founding director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, said he was immediately struck that the 70-year-old Mr. Dolff had no reason to have the young women and their cousin at his house in the middle of the night – providing them large amounts of alcohol while not drinking himself – except to pursue the young women for sex, as the sisters have said.
Mr. Lockyer says that provides an important context in which the violence took place, particularly given the sisters’ history of victimization and Mr. Dolff’s connection to the residential school where they were abused. (The full extent of their past interactions is not clear, but Mr. Lockyer says Nerissa knew Mr. Dolff when she was a child, and that Odelia had been at the house at least once before.)
Mr. Lockyer says he also questions the statements RCMP officers took from the sisters after their arrests. The first were obtained while the women were still under the effects of drugs and alcohol. Other – more incriminating – statements were taken after they had been held at the RCMP detachment over the weekend, despite a justice of the peace ordering they be transferred to a correctional centre. The latter statements, made after days in custody just steps away from the RCMP officers investigating their case, were not recorded and were not written by the sisters, but typed by police officers in a question-and-answer format, then signed.
Ms. Pate says the sisters initially accepted their convictions, which she sees as part of a “hyper-responsibilization” of Indigenous women who – with few supports to deal with the violence and trauma inflicted on them – are forced to protect themselves, and may then feel morally or ethically responsible when something occurs, whether they should be held legally responsible or not.
“Like many women, but particularly Indigenous women that I’ve known, they didn’t particularly question what had happened to them,” Ms. Pate says. “And it’s often over years of being able to explore and deal with the trauma they’ve experienced that they started to question more what had happened to them.”
In late November, Mr. Lockyer sent a letter to the Ministry of Justice and Attorney-General in Saskatchewan asking that the sisters’ murder convictions be substituted for manslaughter, which he hopes would see them released immediately. It’s a highly unusual request, but Mr. Lockyer says it is possible. If denied, he says he will proceed with a formal application to federal Justice Minister David Lametti to have the women’s convictions overturned.
Nerissa is now 48, Odelia almost 50. Odelia remains in custody at a federal healing lodge in Winnipeg, while Nerissa is back in prison in British Columbia, facing revocation of her parole for being unlawfully at large.
Mr. Lockyer says he’s advised the sisters not to speak to media at the moment, but during a Facebook live event in August, Odelia Quewezance said she and Nerissa are growing weak.
“I’m innocent,“ she pleaded. “My sister’s innocent.”
Odelia said she would cut her hair off as an expression of her honesty and truth. Another sister then approached, and cut through Odelia’s long, dark ponytail while Odelia sat in silence.
“I want justice for me and my sister,” Odelia said, after it was done. She was crying as she held her shorn hair up toward the camera. “And this is what I offer, from my heart.”