REGINA - The Canadian Association of Journalists calls on the Government of Saskatchewan, and the province's minister of justice and attorney general, to withdraw its application for a sweeping publication ban that would prevent journalists from reporting on the upcoming bail hearing for a pair of Saulteaux sisters in a possible wrongful conviction case.
Sisters Nerissa and Odelia Quewezance have a bail hearing scheduled in Yorkton Court of King's Bench on Nov. 24-25.
"In Canada, open courts and freedom of the press are foundational values that are embedded in our legal and cultural understanding of how effective systems should work," said CAJ president Brent Jolly.
"Imposing restrictions that institute a proverbial 'cone of silence' prevents the public from properly scrutinizing the merits of the case. This lack of transparency casts a dark shadow over the public's right to know. The court must ask itself: Whose rights would be protected by imposing this publication ban?"
The CAJ is supporting efforts by news organizations, including APTN and CBC to challenge these orders to bear witness and keep the public informed.
Publication bans are orders made to protect the accused person(s) charter-protected right(s) to a fair and public trial. They are also used to ensure that victims, witnesses, and others are able to participate in judicial proceedings without suffering negative consequences.
"As a public trust, journalism must always shine a light on the ways in which our social fabric may be tattered, torn, or in need of repair," said Jolly. "Any effort to muzzle the media not only impinges on the pursuit of justice, as in this case, but it also speaks to the wider abuse of the systems of transparency and accountability in our society. Justice must be seen to be done."
The sisters were convicted in 1994 of second-degree murder in the 1993 death of Kamsack-area farmer Anthony Joseph Dolff. The sisters' cousin – who was a youth at the time - has repeatedly admitted that he is the one who killed Dolff. He was sentenced to only four years in prison and the sisters were sentenced to life in prison. Court documents of the 1994 trial obtained by SASKTODAY.ca reveal that the youth testified, “Odelia and Nerissa were in the opposite room when I stabbed him. They were crying.” Neither of the sisters pleaded guilty to the murder and continue to maintain their innocence.
Earlier this year, federal Justice Minister David Lametti announced they are reviewing the 1994 murder convictions of sisters Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance in Dolff's death saying, “It has been determined there may be a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred in this matter.”
Likewise, Nicole Porter from N. A. Porter and Associates who has been working on the sisters' case condemned the Crown's application.
“It's bad enough these Indigenous women have been locked away in prison for 30 years, but now they have lost their right to speak to the media (following Odelia's latest parole extension),” Porter told SASKTODAY.ca in an email.
“Further troubling are these new applications for a discretionary publication ban and to seal court records,” added Porter. “What are they trying to hide? Certain members of the Saskatchewan government have made it very clear they would rather see these women locked up indefinitely than ever be released. We are seeking a remedy for these Indigenous women, yet at every corner we face resistance from the very government that falsely put them away in the first place.”
In October the Parole Board extended Odelia Quewezance’s day parole with conditions, including that she have limited contact with the media at the request of the victim’s family.
Retired Justices Harry LaForme and Juanita Westmoreland-Traore – who were appointed by federal Justice Minister David Lametti in 2021 to head the creation of an independent Criminal Case Review Commission to review wrongful convictions - say the conviction of Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance has signs of a miscarriage of justice.
Advocate for the wrongfully convicted, the late David Milgaard, had called on Saskatchewan's Justice Minister to exonerate Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance. He also called on Lametti's office to intervene.
In May 2021, Senator Kim Pate said there needed to be an immediate review of the convictions of Nerissa and Odelia Quewezance.
The Canadian Association of Journalists is a professional organization with 1,300 members across Canada. The CAJ's primary roles are public-interest advocacy work and professional development for its members.
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