Do you remember what you were doing 30 years ago?
Maybe you were in university.
Maybe you were getting married.
Maybe you were raising young children.
But none of you were convicted of second degree murder, nor did you receive a life sentence with no chance of parole for 10 years. A prison sentence which stretched into 30 years– until today. And none of you were likely imprisoned for a murder you never committed.
In 1994, that is exactly what happened to Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance, two sisters from the Keeseekoose First Nation near Kamsack, Sask. In 1993, the young women and a cousin who was a youth, were invited into Joseph Dolff’s house to drink. Dolff, aged 70, was a farmer who lived alone and had worked as a janitor at a school the girls had attended. The sisters were 21 and 18 years old, both had been to residential school. At some point, after a night of drinking, the young cousin fought with Dolff over money and killed him. He admitted this at least three times over the decades. After he confessed to second degree murder in the mid 1990s, as a youth offender his sentence was two and a half years in custody and one and a half years under supervision. He’s been out of jail for more than 20 years.
But one sister remains behind bars, and the other one lives a very restricted life in a halfway house.
There is no getting around the fact their entire adulthoods have been lived in prison. When the Crown prosecutor asked, “Even very recently is it fair to say you struggle with substance abuse? Is it fair to say you struggle with trauma?”
Nerissa Quewezance replied, “Well the trauma of being incarcerated for 30 years, yeah. The trauma of all the things I was exposed to in prison.” Never mind both sisters are survivors of residential schools.
Nerissa (left) and Odelia Quewezance, in front of the Yorkton, Sk courthouse, January 2023 (credit: Holly Moore/APTN)
In the last several years feminists, civil libertarians and some lawyers have been waging an uphill battle to get the women’s federal conviction reviewed by the Minister of Justice David Lametti. Though it’s now on his desk, no decision has been made.
In fact, the sisters’ last court appearance was last week. In a courtroom in Yorkton, Sk a judge reserved his decision on their application for bail. Both women are hoping for a conditional release while a federal review of their case moves ahead.
Whatever happened to the chance for parole after ten years— clearly that ship sailed about 20 years ago. They never got parole. Now the women continue to be warehoused– one in prison, the other under strict supervision.
Why are they still doing time? They did not do the crime. In fact they were likely framed for the murder by the police and the courts from the outset. And to begin to understand what happened all those decades ago, you should look at this excellent program by APTN here.
The range at Pine Grove Correctional Centre, Prince Albert, Sask. In the first 11 months of 2022, there were 512 complaints by inmates about life in Pine Grove. At some point in their 30 years of incarceration, the Quewezance sisters were in this jail.
Imagine getting 30 years for a murder you didn’t do
Did the fact the Quewezance women are Indigenous have anything to do with their wrongful conviction, and their heinous sentence.
Well, judge for yourself.
Item: Gerald Stanley a 56 year old white farmer from Biggar, Sk was found not guilty of second degree murder. In 2016, the gun he held shot and killed Colten Boushie. Boushie, aged 22, was from the Cree Red Pheasant First Nation, 57 km from Biggar. Stanley killed Boushie at close range with at least one bullet to the head, as Boushie and two young women sat in a car on Stanley’s property. Stanley said his gun went off when he went up to the car window. Boushie was killed instantly.
Item: Raymond Joseph Cormier, aged 53, was charged with second degree murder in 2018. Tina Fontaine, aged 15, from Sagkeeng First Nation was found in Winnipeg’s Red River wrapped in plastic and Cormier’s duvet cover. He was found not guilty.
Item: Barbara Kentner was a 34 year old mother, from the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation near Kenora, Ont. In January 2017, she and her sister were walking along a city street in Thunder Bay. Brayden Bushby, from the passenger side of a moving car, threw a trailer hitch out of the window as the car passed her. At least three other young white men were in the car at the time. The hitch struck Kentner; witnesses say they heard the young man yell “got one” as the car sped off. Bushby, aged 22, pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, despite the fact that Kentner died in hospital six months later due to complications from the assault from the trailer hitch. The judge sentenced Bushby to 8 years in prison. He had been out on bail for three years until the trial. An eight year sentence means he will be out of jail on mandatory release in just over five years—less if he has good behaviour. The crown had asked for eight to twelve years. Here is my article in the NS Advocate about Kentner.
Below: Rebecca Macknac at march for justice for Barbara Kentner, at the old courthouse, Thunder Bay, Nov. 3, 2020 (David Jackson/TheCanadianPress); rally for Tina Lafontaine at Cabot Square Montreal (credit; Thien), photo of Colten Boushie from Facebook; banner of No More Silence (Communist Party of Canada). And a portrait of Pamela George
Item: In Regina in 1995, Pamela George, 28 years old and a First Nation’s mother of two, was kidnapped and murdered by Steven Kummerfield and Alex Turnowetski. Both men where white, in their early 20s and university athletes. They drove her outside the city, raped her then beat her to death. They left her dead, face down, in a roadside ditch. When asked by a fellow student what had he done on the weekend, Kummerfield replied, “Not much. We drove around, got drunk and killed this chick.” Later, separately, Ternowetsky is reported to have told the same friend, “She deserved it. She was Indian.”
At their trial for manslaughter (not murder), the judge took pains to remind the jury that Pamela George was a prostitute—which implied she was worth less than they, had consented to the abuse and even to her own murder. The sentences? Each man received a sentence of 6.5 years; Kummerfield got out in 3.5 years though the parole board noted “you speak little about your victim and the suffering you caused her and the family she left behind.” Kummerfield changed his name, moved to Mexico and became a published poet. I wrote about Pamela George and compared her murder to that of Halifax’s Tanya Brooks.
To put the matter of prison time for the killers more starkly, from 1996 to 2018, 22 years, the sentences for white men who killed Indigenous women have increased in length by 23%.
Society clearly still indulges white men when it comes to the deaths of Indigenous women.
Not so with the Quewezance sisters. They received life in prison for the murder of a white man, a man they did not kill.
Ultimate irony: the sisters could be a risk to the public
And still the judge in Yorkton, Sk is asking for proof that the sisters will not be a risk to the public, and that they have a plan for employment and ongoing support. Now that the Quewezance sisters are in the system, they must prove they should get out.
For an excellent article about the Pamela George case, read Gendered Racial Violence and Spatialized Justice: The Murder of Pamela George; Canadian Journal of Law and Society, 2000 ; Pages: 91-99 ; Volume: 15 ; Issue: 2
Featured image: Artwork found in the online gallery of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Artist unknown.