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Odelia Quewezance talks about her sister Nerissa during a Facebook live event with supporters.

The federal Minister of Justice has ordered an investigation into the 1994 murder convictions of two Indigenous sisters, raising hopes of exoneration in a case that has long been a focus of justice advocates.

Justice Minister David Lametti notified lawyers for Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance on Thursday that their application for a ministerial conviction review will move to the investigation phase, the second step of Canada’s four-stage conviction review process.

“On behalf of the Minister of Justice, I am writing to advise you that it has been determined there may be a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred in this matter,” says the letter, signed by Kate Kehoe, a lawyer with the Department of Justice’s Criminal Conviction Review Group.

Indigenous sisters struggle to undo a 1994 murder conviction and break a cycle of parole and punishment

The Quewezance sisters have served nearly 30 years for the murder of Joseph Dolff, who was beaten and stabbed to death at his farmhouse northeast of Kamsack, Sask., in 1993. Their 15-year-old cousin pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and confessed to the crime during the sisters’ trial, but an all-white jury still found both women guilty.

Justice Ellen Gunn sentenced them to life in prison with no chance of parole for 10 years, the shortest allowable parole eligibility period for a murder sentence.

The sisters are Saulteaux. They grew up in Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan and attended the St. Philip’s residential school, where they faced physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

Senator Kim Pate met them in the 1990s while she was working for the Elizabeth Fry Society, a charitable organization that supports marginalized women and girls. Ms. Pate has been working for their exoneration, along with lawyers James Lockyer and Deanna Harris, private investigator Jolene Johnson and Congress of Aboriginal Peoples national vice-chief Kim Beaudin. David Milgaard, an advocate for wrongfully convicted people who spent 23 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, also worked on the sisters’ behalf before his death in May.

On Thursday, Odelia, who recently earned day parole, appeared at an Ottawa news conference with a number of advocates to call for the exoneration of her and her sister, who remains in prison.

“Thirty years is a long time,” she said. “It’s cruel and unusual punishment.”

Odelia credited Mr. Milgaard with taking her and her sister’s case to James Lockyer and Innocence Canada, a non-profit that has helped exonerate 24 people since 1993.

Just hours after the news conference, the sisters received the Justice Department letter.

“We were jumping up and down when we read it,” Mr. Beaudin said. “You’d think we won the lottery. We were stunned.”

Ms. Harris, who works with Legal Aid Saskatchewan, said the letter gives her hope that both women will be released from custody shortly.

Much work remains. The investigation stage could entail subpoenaing and interviewing witnesses, conducting DNA tests, obtaining forensic assessments and consulting police, prosecutors and defence lawyers involved in the original case.

The Justice Department would not say how long the investigation phase might take.

“For privacy reasons, we cannot comment on the particulars of any application,” said Geneviève Groulx, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice.

Mr. Lametti has been overseeing an overhaul of the conviction review process, which has been criticized for being slow and discriminatory.

Last year, he tapped Harry LaForme, the first Indigenous lawyer on an appellate court in Canada, and Juanita Westmoreland Traoré, Quebec’s first Black judge, to report on how the government could create an independent commission to review miscarriages of justice.

In their report, the two former judges said the minister’s office has received 186 applications since 2003 and ordered 20 new trials or appeals.

All the successful applications came from men. One was Indigenous and one was Black.

Ms. Pate highlighted that discrepancy in a recent report that pressed the Justice Department to review the cases of 12 Indigenous women caught up in the criminal-justice system, including the Quewezance sisters.

The report called for all 12 women to be exonerated on the basis of discrimination, inequality and violence they faced within the criminal-justice system.

This week, Ms. Pate wrote to the Minister of Public Safety to request clemency, called the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, for the 12 women.

“It’s a very positive step for the Quewezance sisters and I’m incredibly excited and happy for them,” Ms. Pate said of the Justice Minister’s decision. “I’m also hopeful the government will turn the page on an abysmal history of systemic discrimination and actually remedy these miscarriages of justice.”

With a report from Jana Pruden

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