The impending bail hearing for two Indigenous sisters who have spent nearly four decades in prison for a murder they maintain they did not commit has brought powerful advocates from across the county to their side.
Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance and their cousin, Jason Keshane, who was 14 at the time, were charged with second-degree murder in the death of Kamsack, Sask., farmer Anthony Dolff in February 1993, and were indicted a year later.
The sisters pleaded not guilty and have maintained their innocence throughout the nearly three-decade incarceration since their convictions.
Keshane has confessed to Dolff's murder several times, including during the trial and to an APTN investigation, and was sentenced to two years in prison.
Success at the bail hearing would allow the sisters to leave incarceration while the federal government reviews their case for potential miscarriage of justice.
However, a Saskatchewan senior Crown prosecutor requested last week a publication ban on all evidence at the hearing,
CBC and APTN plan to oppose the publication ban. A Saskatchewan court will consider the ban this month.
LISTEN | Odelia talks about her hopes for exoneration and lawyer discusses the case
Kim Pate, an Ontario senator, called the ban request "absurd" during an online news conference Monday morning called to decry the publication ban and the province's stance on the case.
"When it looks like there's a problem … chances are there is something significantly wrong with how this case was handled," she said.
Pate says the provincial government appears to be deflecting attention and denying responsibility for the conviction of the Quewezance sisters instead of supporting Ottawa in its review.
Pate called on Saskatchewan Minister of Justice Bronwyn Eyre to support the federal application to review the sisters' convictions, support the application for bail and pull the requested publication ban.
Pate also said the federal government should prioritize the Quewezance review.
Kim Beaudin, Congress of Aboriginal Peoples vice-chief, suggested that by trying to "muzzle the media" through the bail hearing's publication ban, the Saskatchewan government is trying to hide something.
He said the provincial government needs to step forward and do the right thing, saying he was "deeply disturbed" by the publication ban's effect on media coverage, which works to hold the government to account.
"They want to keep both Odelia and Nerissa tied up in the justice system for the rest of their natural lives," said Beaudin, a vocal advocate for the sisters.
"This is nothing more than race-based policy — race-based justice. Indigneous people in this province, and in Canada as well, know that the systems are stacked against them."
The last time I was in one of the provincial jails in Saskatchewan you were hard pressed to find and see a non-Indigenous person - Senator Kim Pate
A spokesperson for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice and Attorney General provided a statement on behalf of public prosecutions, saying publication bans are "a standard practice for bail hearings."
"In certain situations, a publication ban and/or sealing of records may be requested to ensure fairness in the event of any future legal proceedings, such as a new trial or a hearing before the Court of Appeal," the statement said.
"The courts have recognized a critical difference between cases where the open court principle enhances public awareness of judicial proceedings, and cases where it could negatively affect any potential future proceedings."
In a statement to CBC's The Current published in June, the provincial justice ministry said it is co-operating with the federal review but after further examination, "public prosecutions did not find a basis to reconsider the verdicts outside the federal review process."
Calls for an independent commission
Nicole Porter, a criminal consultant and social justice advocate who is doing a pro bono independent forensic analysis of the Quewezance case, told reporters members of the Saskatchewan government have "made it very clear that they would rather see these women locked up indefinitely than ever be released."
Allowing Odelia and Nerissa to go home would be a step toward reconciliation, she said.
Their incarceration is one argument for an independent criminal case commission, Porter says, which the federal government has committed to creating. It would consider applications from those who believe they have been wrongfully convicted or have suffered a miscarriage of justice.
She says the commission is a step in the right direction and would allow more people to have their miscarriages heard.
"It's better than what we would have now," Porter said.
Porter started a petition to federal Justice Minister David Lametti to release the two sisters. It has climbed to more than 47,000 signatures.
'Systemic racism' blamed for incarceration rate
Odelia and Nerissa are among the growing rate of Indigenous women in federal penitentiaries, a sign that "the systemic racism we know continues," Pate said.
She cited past statistics from the Office of the Correctional Investigator, provincial bodies and work from other organizations that show Indigenous women make up 50 per cent of the population in federal prisons and between 75 to 95 per cent in Saskatchewan.
"When you look at Indigneous young women alone, which of course is the ages at which both Odelia and Nerissa entered the system, the number is a horrific 98 per cent of the youth jail population," Pate said.
"We're talking about a problem that is rife and requires immediate action."
Indigenous people make up about 75 to 80 per cent of the population in province-run jails in Saskatchewan, according to the Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety.
"The last time I was in one of the provincial jails in Saskatchewan you were hard pressed to find and see a non-Indigenous person," Pate said.
LISTEN | Senator Kim Pate on the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in Canadian prisons