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Odelia Kevezance and her sister Nerissa Kevezance have maintained their innocence since they were convicted of second-degree murder in 1993 in Saskatchewan.
Now, after nearly 30 years in prison, Odelia says the federal Justice Department’s recent decision to reopen their case was like her “prayers have been answered” but freedom is still out of reach.
“I am grateful for the good news from my lawyer, from the Minister of Justice [David] Lametti,” said Odelia, a Kizikuza woman who is on parole, lives in a halfway house and is subject to certain restrictions.
“But I just, I still think, why am I not going out today? And, you know… I’m going to say it today. Maybe it’s because I’m indigenous,” she said. current Matt Galloway.
In 1993, 70-year-old farmer Anthony Joseph Dolff took Odelia and Nerissa, then aged 20 and 18 respectively, from their home in Kizikuza and took them to his neighbor’s home in Kamsak, Sask. 230 km northeast of Regina. They were accompanied by the woman’s cousin Jason Keshane, who was 14 years old.
Dolph proposed to women after a night of drinking, leading to a confrontation with Keshan. Dolph was stabbed to death, strangled with a telephone cord, and a TV set was thrown on his head. He died at the scene.
Keshane confessed to killing the elderly man many times, including during the ensuing trial, and to the APTN investigation.
But all three were convicted of second-degree murder in 1994.
As a minor, Keshane served four years in custody. The sisters received life sentences. Odelia now lives in a nursing home in Winnipeg, while Nerissa is still incarcerated in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley.
Late last year, the Office of the Corrections Investigator noted that Indigenous women make up 50 percent of women in federal prisons, and that percentage is rising when Indigenous women make up about five percent of Canadian women.
WATCH | Half of the female population in Canada’s federal prisons are Indigenous women:
Odelia has spent most of her life in institutions, from being forced to attend boarding school as a child to being imprisoned at 21. She is also a survivor of sexual abuse and has described her decades in the prison system as “a battle”.
“I was a lost man, a lost woman, and it was hard, hard on the head,” she said.
“I also tried to commit suicide because, you know, I don’t belong here. Faith kept me going.”
Neither sister has seen each other for almost 19 years, since their father’s funeral. But Odelia said they found ways to be strong for each other.
“No one can understand how we feel, except me and her.”
Sisters became victims of systemic racism: lawyer
Late last year, the sisters’ Toronto lawyer, James Lockyer, wrote to Lametti asking for a review of their sentences.
In early June, he received a letter written on Lametti’s behalf stating that “there may be reasonable grounds for inferring a probable miscarriage of justice” in the sisters’ case. The letter states that the issue will be taken into consideration.
“If a [the minister] decides what really happened [a miscarriage of justice]then he has the right to either overturn the conviction himself or send it back to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeals for retrial as an appeal,” said Lockyer, a lawyer with Innocence Canada, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rehabilitation of people convicted of crimes they did not commit.
The letter arrived on the same day Odelia took part in a press conference on Parliament Hill in protest against her and Nerissa’s innocence.
Lockyer took on the case at the request of David Milgaard, who spent 23 years in prison for rape and murder in 1969, which he did not commit. Milgaard died last month, but has become a friend of the Quevezance sisters and an advocate for a retrial.
Lockyer said the initial prosecution case depended on a series of statements the sisters gave to RCMP officers in Camsac, but those statements were never properly recorded despite the presence of recording equipment.
He said the RCMP also ignored the judge’s order to transfer the women to the nearest provincial prison and instead held them in Kamsak for five days for interrogation.
“Perhaps not surprisingly, the statements became more and more incriminating, so that by the end of them, Nerissa and Odelia allegedly admitted some involvement in the stabbing of a cousin,” Lockyer told Galloway.
Lockyer said the role they played was never fully determined in court.
“They have been victims of systemic racism in the police investigation and in the actions of the police. In my opinion, they were victims of systemic discrimination in terms of how their trial was handled.”
In a statement to ElectricityThe Saskatchewan Department of Justice said that after further investigation, “The Public Prosecution has found no basis for reviewing convictions outside of the federal review process.” The statement added that it is cooperating with this review and “in the process of disclosing information to reviewing authorities.”
Lockyer said the ministry refused to share Crown or police files with him, so “if they say they’re cooperating with anyone, that’s what I could call wrong, to be polite.”
The RCMP declined to comment, citing the ongoing review process and the possibility that it “may include consultations with the police authorities involved in the case.”
Lametti turned down an interview request Electricity, referring to the current overview. In an emailed statement, he said his decision in the sisters’ case would be made “based on the facts and the law.”
He acknowledged that the review system needed to be improved and said that work was underway to set up a new independent commission to review criminal cases.
More broadly, the minister said “systemic discrimination and racism is a reality for too many in Canada’s criminal justice system” and pointed to the federal government’s Bill C-5, which would remove the 21 minimum mandatory sentencing requirements “that unfairly affect Indigenous peoples.” “. as well as black and marginalized Canadians.”
Bill C-5 is only “tinkering” with the problem: Senator
Last month, Senator Kim Pate said Bill C-5 would remove less than half of Canada’s 67 mandatory minimum sentences and only “tinker” with problems that make Indigenous women overrepresented in the Canadian prison system.
She said Electricity that in the case of a mandatory minimum sentence, the judge may not be able to see the full context of the case and its circumstances.
“If we really want to solve this problem, we need to take much clearer steps so that the judges have the opportunity to do their job,” she said.
Pate was one of three senators who co-authored a report last month calling for the rehabilitation and panel review of 12 imprisoned indigenous women. She said their cases “illustrate systemic problems that … need to be fixed.”
LISTEN | Calls End the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in Canada’s prisons:
Electricity19:43Advocates are calling for “liberation” and other measures to end the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in Canada’s prisons.
The Quevezance sisters are among the 12 women who died after the report was made.
“We all have different stories, different cases, but I truly believe that we were all condemned because of racism,” Odelia said.
“It saddens me. This saddens my heart, because – 30 years of my life.
Link to the full report on the injustices and miscarriages faced by 12 Indigenous women: https://t.co/AFLx6exL6H@DavidLametti @SenatorBoyer а> & Senator Anderson #TRC #MMIWG #reconciliACTION #SenCA #cdnpoli #cdnmedia pic.twitter.com/k4eJUZ0ns2
Lockyer said he would like to see “a public inquiry into the justice system’s treatment of Indigenous women” and believes the Quevezance sisters’ rehabilitation could spark calls for one.
The minister’s decision “could very well take a year, two years, three years,” Lockyer said. While the timeline is unclear, the ruling could give Odelia and Nerissa the right to seek bail.
For Odelia, rehabilitation would mean “finally justice” and freedom.
Three decades later, she worries that “it will take a long time to get used to freedom again.”
“But it will be a sign from David Milgaard because that is what he wanted. And I know we deserve it because my sister and I don’t belong in jail.”
Written by Padraig Moran using CBC Indigenous files. Producer Enza Uda.
Support is available to anyone who has been affected by their boarding school experience or recent reports.
A national crisis line for Indian boarding schools has been set up to provide support to former students and victims. People can access emotional and crisis help services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
If you or someone you know is struggling with issues related to suicide, here’s where to get help:
This guide is from Center for Addictions and Mental Health describes how to talk about suicide with someone you’re worried about.