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Milgaard pushed for action on Indigenous sisters’ wrongful conviction claims

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David Milgaard was actively helping people who claim they have been wrongfully convicted right up until his sudden death, including two Indigenous sisters who have been incarcerated for nearly 30 years.

The victim of one of Canada’s most notorious miscarriages of justice, he spent 23 years in prison for a 1969 rape and murder he didn’t commit.

Milgaard died over the weekend after a short illness at the age of 69.

Odelia Quewezance, who was convicted of second-degree murder in a 1993 killing she denies taking part in, told The Canadian Press Milgaard was her “biggest supporter,” and that he was “like a brother, an angel” to her.

“I’m really heartbroken about him, but I honestly believe today that he’s still watching over us,” she said in a phone interview.

She was speaking from Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan after being approved for a brief visit home, her first in years, she said.

Her husband first reached out to Milgaard around two years ago about her case, Quewezance said, and they had communicated often ever since.

Milgaard wished her well just a few days before her visit home, she said.

James Lockyer, a Toronto-based lawyer who helped with Milgaard’s exoneration in 1997 and helped found the advocacy organization Innocence Canada, was in Keeseekoose to meet with Quewezance on Monday.

Lockyer said he wouldn’t be working on the case if it weren’t for Milgaard championing Quewezance, who was 20 at the time she was arrested in the killing of 70-year-old farmer Anthony Joseph Dolff, near Kamsack, Sask.

Her sister Nerissa, who was 18 then, was also convicted and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 10 years.

Nerissa is in prison at an institution in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, where Lockyer said he met her for the first time in person on Sunday.

Odelia said she spoke with Nerissa for the first time in a while on Monday.

It’s been about 19 years since the sisters last saw each other in person.

Lockyer said they were present when Dolff was fatally stabbed, but they were not involved in the killing. Someone who was a youth at the time confessed to the killing at trial, testifying that the sisters were not involved, he said.

Milgaard had urged Lockyer to look at the sisters’ case. He decided to take it on after speaking with them and reading transcripts from the trial, he said.

The evidence that the sisters were involved in the killing was dependent on the police officers who arrested them, Lockyer said, explaining that the RCMP claimed they gave a series of statements that weren’t recorded and became “more and more incriminating” over the course of five days.

A provincial judge had ordered them sent to a nearby jail 24 hours after their arrest, he said, but the pair were held by the Mounties for four more days.

Lockyer described them as “two young Indigenous women, essentially at the mercy of a whole bunch of RCMP officers for five days with no protection.”

“It’s apparent to me that the statements that they gave that were the later statements, that were incriminating, are entirely unreliable,” he said.

The sisters are part of the staggering statistic that Indigenous women make up nearly half of women incarcerated at federal prisons when they comprise less than five per cent of Canada’s population, Lockyer said.

“Forget for a moment the miscarriage of justice at their trial, they’re still (incarcerated), 20 years after they were eligible for parole,” Lockyer said.

“They need to be able to live the rest of their lives as free persons.”

The only remaining route forward to have the Quewezance sisters’ convictions quashed is through ministerial review, said Lockyer, who filed an application with Justice Minister David Lametti on their behalf in December.

The minister has appointed a counsel in Ottawa to review the case on his behalf, Lockyer said.

“We then have to convince her, and the minister himself, that this case is a miscarriage of justice,” he said.

In a statement mourning Milgaard’s death, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples said “the faith and strength he showed at the worst of times is an inspiring story that continues to drive advocates for those unfairly targeted.”

National Vice-Chief Kim Beaudin said Milgaard’s support for Indigenous people “struggling within the Canadian justice system will not be forgotten.”

“His work to help the Quewezance sisters has helped bring them closer to finding justice.”

Milgaard was just 16 when he was charged and went on to be wrongfully convicted in the rape and murder of a woman in Saskatoon in 1969.

The Winnipeg-born teenager had been passing through the city on a road trip with two friends at the time nursing aide Gail Miller was raped and killed.

Milgaard had described prison as “a nightmare.”

He was released in 1992 after his mother, who fought relentlessly to clear his name, pushed to get the case heard by the Supreme Court of Canada. His conviction was thrown out and he was later exonerated by DNA testing in 1997.

A man named Larry Fisher was convicted in 1999 of first-degree murder in Miller’s death and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2015.

The Saskatchewan government issued Milgaard a formal apology and awarded him a $10-million compensation package.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2022.

 

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press

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Public inquiry in Nova Scotia seeking explanation from Ottawa about withheld notes

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HALIFAX — The inquiry investigating the Nova Scotia mass shooting wants to know why the federal Justice Department withheld notes written by a senior Mountie for several months — and if there’s more revelations to come.

“The commission sought an explanation … about why four pages were missing from the original disclosure,” Barbara McLean, the inquiry’s director of investigations, said in an email Friday.

“The commission is also demanding an explanation for any further material that has been held back.”

On Tuesday, the inquiry released internal RCMP documents that include notes taken by Supt. Darren Campbell during a meeting with senior officers and staff on April 28, 2020 — nine days after a gunman killed 22 people in northern and central Nova Scotia.

At the meeting, the head of the RCMP, Commissioner Brenda Lucki, said she was disappointed that details about the firearms used by the killer had not been released at previous news conferences in Halifax, according to Campbell’s notes.

Campbell alleges that Lucki said she had promised the Prime Minister’s Office that the Mounties would release the descriptions, adding that the information would be “tied to pending gun control legislation that would make officers and public safer.”

The superintendent’s notes sparked controversy in Ottawa earlier this week, when the opposition Tories  and New Democrats accused the governing Liberals of interfering in a police investigation for political gain — assertions denied by the government and Lucki.

Meanwhile, the commission of inquiry confirmed Friday that the Justice Department sent 132 pages of Campbell’s notes in February 2022, but they did not include his entries about the April meeting.

The missing notes were submitted to commission on May 31.

McLean says the commission is seeking assurance that nothing else has been held back, and she complained about RCMP documents that had already been disclosed.

“These documents have often been provided in a disjointed manner that has required extensive commission team review,” McLean wrote in her email. “Our team continues to review all disclosure carefully for any gaps or additional information required to fulfil our mandate.”

Michael Scott, a lawyer whose firm represents 14 of the victims’ families, said he’s concerned about the document delay.

“Any time documents are either vetted, redacted or withheld in a way that’s not entirely appropriate, it entirely undermines the process as a whole,” he said in an interview Friday.

Scott said that on top of having to read thousands of pages of records, transcripts and notes submitted to the inquiry, “now we have to be concerned we’re not getting all the documents.”

The Conservatives released a statement Friday, alleging a federal coverup.

“Canadians will find it hard to believe that the (justice) minister’s department just happened to miss those four critical pages of evidence,” the statement said. “This is no coincidence. This was no accident.”

Kent Roach, a University of Toronto law professor, said delays in receiving information from the RCMP means the inquiry is left to grapple with important issues late in its mandate. The inquiry’s final report is due Nov. 1 and all submissions are expected by September.

“It’s unfortunate because public inquiries need the full documentary record as quickly as possible so they can make decisions on what to look at and what to not look at,” said Roach, author of “Canadian Policing: Why and How It Must Change.”

“If the mass casualty commission had known about this earlier, it might have decided to conduct its hearings and research in a different way,” he said Friday.

The professor said the comments from Campbell raise questions about the structure of the RCMP, and its competing mandates of being both a local and nation police force whose commissioner serves “at the pleasure” of the minister of public safety.

“My concern is that the citizens (of Nova Scotia) seem to be on the sidelines while there is tension and squabbling between RCMP Nova Scotia and RCMP Ottawa,” he said.

The Canadian Press requested comment from the RCMP, but a response was not immediately available.

Campbell said in an email that he would not comment. He said he is waiting to be interviewed by the commission.

“My interview has been scheduled and it will take place in the very near future,” he wrote.

“I also expect to be called to the Mass Casualty Commission as a witness sometime near the end of July and I look forward to both opportunities.  As such, it would be inappropriate for me to make any public comments prior to giving evidence under oath.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

 

Lyndsay Armstrong and Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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Protesters descend on U.S. Supreme Court to decry decision to overturn Roe v. Wade

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WASHINGTON — Hundreds of Americans — many enraged, others elated — gathered on Capitol Hill to vent their feelings Friday after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that made it possible for women to obtain legal abortions in the United States.

Out in front of the high court’s towering marble facade, ringfenced for weeks by an imposing two-metre barricade, the two sides remained largely peaceful, save for the occasional shouting match, under the watchful eyes of dozens of Capitol Police officers.

Some sat to the side, weeping openly or staring at the ground. Others shouted slogans and brandished hand-lettered, profanity-laced placards, many vowing to “aid and abet” a medical procedure that’s all but guaranteed to become illegal in fully half the country.

“I can’t believe that I’m alive in this country where we’ve made some progress, and this is a huge step back,” said Libby Malditz, whose two-word placard bore a simple — and unprintable — message to the five Supreme Court justices who supported the decision.

Malditz, who closed her two D.C.-area retail shops so that employees could attend the protests, said she’s wary about what comes next in a country already wracked with division and social tension.

“Violence isn’t going to help, but we also saw through the civil rights movement that sometimes violence needs to happen for change to happen,” she said.

“I hope it doesn’t come to that, I won’t be part of that, but you know, it’s that bad in our country right now. People need to rise up. If you don’t have freedom, you have nothing.”

Three of the five justices who voted in favour of the decision — Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett — were appointed by former president Donald Trump, who promptly issued a statement taking full credit for the decision.

He called it “the biggest WIN for LIFE in a generation,” one that came “because I delivered everything as promised.”

The court voted 6-3 to uphold the Mississippi abortion ban at the core of the original case, but Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a concurring opinion against overturning Roe — “repudiating a constitutional right” the court has already recognized and reaffirmed.

Roberts also did not sign the scorching dissent penned by the court’s diminished liberal wing: justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer.

“With sorrow — for this court, but more for the many millions of American women who have today lost a fundamental constitutional protection — we dissent,” they wrote.

Within hours of the decision, foreshadowed back in May when an early draft of the ruling found its way past the veil of secrecy that normally shrouds the court’s deliberations, state governments were already moving to enact abortion bans, some of which had been on the books for years.

Thirteen states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, the Dakotas and Idaho, have trigger laws that will take effect within the next 30 days, if not immediately.

Five others — Alabama, Iowa, Ohio, Georgia and South Carolina — are sure to challenge court decisions that blocked or struck down their abortion bans. Indiana and West Virginia are also widely expected to impose strict new laws.

In the trigger state of Missouri, Attorney General Eric Schmitt said officials would promptly enforce a 2019 ban on abortions except in cases of medical emergency. In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey vowed to ask a judge to lift an injunction on her state’s near-total ban.

Jamie Manson, president of the group Catholics for Choice, said she’s hoping Friday’s decision serves as a jarring wake-up call for anyone in the U.S. who hasn’t been paying close attention to what’s been happening.

“It takes us to a place that I hope is the tipping point for people in the United States who I think did not believe this day would come,” said Manson, who described the “Christian nationalist agenda” that she said is taking over the country.

“We were lulled into complacency. I think we were raised to believe that rights would always be expanded, not restricted.”

Polls have consistently indicated that fewer than one-third of Americans support striking down Roe v. Wade, which has served as both a bedrock precedent for the courts and a lodestar for reproductive rights champions for the last 49 years.

That has Democrats, who face a reckoning in the midterm elections in November, priming the pumps for abortion to be a major motivator in getting their supporters out to the polls this fall.

“This is not over,” President Joe Biden vowed Friday as he urged Congress to step up and codify in federal law the principles that Roe v. Wade had preserved.

He said the Supreme Court is clearly embarking on an “extreme and dangerous path” that could soon jeopardize other high court precedents that are not expressly preserved in the U.S. Constitution, such as the right to same-sex marriage and birth control.

“The court has done what it has never done before: expressly take away a constitutional right that is so fundamental to so many Americans that had already been recognized,” Biden said.

The decision will have “real and immediate consequences” for the health of women, he added, and leave them exposed to criminal sanction simply for doing what’s necessary to protect their well-being.

“It’s — it just stuns me.”

Vice-President Kamala Harris, speaking in Illinois, noted that women in the U.S. now have less access to reproductive health care than their mothers and grandmothers had for the better part of half a century.

“Right now, as of this minute, we can only talk about what Roe v. Wade protected — past tense,” Harris said. “Millions of women in America will go to bed tonight without access to the health care and reproductive care that they had this morning.”

That is sure to have many of them looking to abortion-friendly states like California, which is already bracing for an influx of patients, said Rep. Sara Jacobs, a Democrat who represents the state’s 53rd district, which includes parts of San Diego.

In the meantime, it’s vital for Congress to do away with the legislative filibuster so it can codify protections for abortion into law, Jacobs said in an interview in the midst of Friday’s protest.

“While we do that, we need to work with the states so that they have the support they need,” she said. “States like California, which I represent, are going to have an influx of people from other states who are coming to be able to access the reproductive health care that they deserve.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2022.

 

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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Hillier calls on Ottawa to provide aid to Ukraine, laments waning interest in war

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OTTAWA — Retired general Rick Hillier is lamenting what he sees as waning Canadian interest in the war in Ukraine as public and political attention turns increasingly toward the rising rate of inflation and other issues closer to home.

But the former Canadian defence chief who served as the face of this country’s military mission in Afghanistan for years warns that even more economic hardship is in store if Canada and its allies don’t step up their support for Ukraine and stop Russia.

That includes the rapid provision of hundreds of millions of dollars in Canadian military aid that the federal Liberal government promised in April, only a fraction of which has been delivered.

“Just imagine what would occur if Russia breaks through and takes Ukraine, changes the oil and gas flow dramatically, changes the flow of wheat into Africa, to the Black Sea ports,” he said in an interview.

“The implication will be double, triple or quadruple what we see right now. … It’s right to do more as a nation and we can afford to do more. But secondly, do it because the economic implications down the road of not doing it are brutal for us also.”

Hillier was speaking in his role as the new head of an advisory council comprised of retired military commanders organized by the Ukrainian World Congress, an advocacy group for the Ukrainian diaspora.

The UWC has been running a campaign called Unite With Ukraine that seeks to raise funds to buy non-lethal military equipment for the country’s Territorial Defence Force, which is comprised of volunteers — including foreigners — fighting Russia’s invasion.

Canada has been a staunch supporter of the Ukrainian military since Russian forces first attacked in late February, with the Liberal government promising $500 million in military aid in April’s federal budget.

The government says it has since provided more than $150 million worth of assistance, including millions in artillery shells, drones and satellite imagery. Those are in addition to the provision of four artillery guns and several armoured vehicles.

Defence Minister Anita Anand earlier this week held up the purchase of drone cameras for the Ukrainian military as one of several recent successes when it comes to military procurement, saying the government “turned around a contract within days.”

But Hillier says there needs to be a greater sense of urgency as Russia, after its early battlefield blunders, has started to deploy more of its military capabilities in ways that the Ukrainians are finding difficult to counter.

“They’ve committed half-a-billion dollars and I’d like to see that money spent in very effective ways, with things delivered to the Ukrainian defence forces literally right now, and not go through a procurement process,” he said.

“Let’s get them what they need right now.”

Hillier repeated some of his past calls for Canada to send some of the hundreds of light-armoured vehicles that form the backbone of the Canadian Army’s mechanized power, as well as dozens of tanks.

At the same time, he worried that the war in Ukraine is falling down the priority list for Canadians as they face more pressure on their pocketbooks due to rising fuel and food costs as well as mortgage rates.

“I watched a variety of national news shows over the last days and several weeks and Ukraine is barely mentioned, let alone what’s occurring there,” he said. “And people are worried about their ability to put food on their table, and their jobs and house.”

Hillier’s comments came as the Russian military extended its grip on territory in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, and the Ukrainian military announced the arrival of powerful U.S. multiple-launch rocket systems it hopes will offer a battlefield advantage.

The U.S. plans to send another US$450 million in military aid to Ukraine, including some additional medium-range rocket systems, ammunition and other supplies, U.S. officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide details ahead of an announcement.

Analysts said the advanced systems, which Canada does not operate, would give Ukrainian forces greater precision in hitting Russian targets.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2022.

⁠ — With files from The Associated Press.

 

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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