"Late-breaking story on the CBC, a nation whispers, we always knew that he'd go free."
The first time David Milgaard’s mother, Joyce, heard those words, she cried.
It was 1992, and Joyce’s son had recently been released from prison after serving 23 years — 8,355 days — for a heinous crime he didn’t commit. He was just 17 when he was wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of nursing assistant Gail Miller.
The Tragically Hip, inspired by the case, wrote “Wheat Kings.” According to Gord Downie in the book Top 100 Canadian Singles, the song is “about David Milgaard and his faith in himself. And about his mother, Joyce, and her absolute faith in her son's innocence. And about our big country and its faith in man’s fallibility. And about Gail Miller, all those mornings ago, just lying there, all her faith bleeding out into that Saskatoon snowbank.”
It became known as one of the most infamous wrongdoings in the Canadian criminal justice system, to be studied in law classes across the country. “Wheat Kings,” for its part, is one of the Hip’s most popular, most inspired songs of their 30-year career. They released it on their album Fully Completely in October 1992, six months after David’s release, which followed what must have felt like a lifetime of behind-the-scenes work from his family to have David’s conviction overturned.
Part of that work was reaching out to the Tragically Hip, says Milgaard’s sister Susan in an exclusive email interview with CBC q producer Sonya Buyting.
"My sister Maureen is actually the person who saw the Tragically Hip when they were performing [the Sunfest in Gimli,] Manitoba and approached them to see if they would make an announcement at their concert,” says Susan.
"You could not have asked for a more definitive belief in his innocence than their words"
She and her sister were trying to get signatures for a petition (after they reached 10,000 signatures it was presented to the House of Commons) and taking donations for T-shirts and buttons to help fundraise for the legal costs of the case. “Bless their hearts that they listened to her and took the steps that they did in writing the song,” she says.
They were introduced to the band by Sam Katz, who would become mayor of Winnipeg in 2004, but at the time ran an entertainment company that brought in live acts.
“He was of course very involved with entertainers at the time and knew them,” says Susan. “We often had people ask us if the song ‘38 Years Old’ was written about David and of course we explained it wasn’t."
The band spent time with Maureen and “listened to our struggle” says Susan, and they were both overwhelmed when they heard the resulting song. “You could not have asked for a more definitive belief in his innocence than their words,” she says. “Their words also spoke volumes to the ‘tomorrows’ we felt each day. Hopeful for that phone call, letter-note or any one good thing to happen to free David.”
After his release, David started his long journey of recovery. He also took a trip in 1993 to meet the Tragically Hip, where he shook Gord Downie’s hand and stood in the crowd at a concert as they dedicated “Wheat Kings” to David.
“I am humbled by their words and they touched a part of my heart that I had closed because of the case” writes Susan. “It opened my eyes to possibility. It was with a heavy heavy heart when I read of their troubles. There are no words that I can offer to show support but my small way is to have, and continue to keep, them in my prayers. I shall be forever grateful.”
Although perhaps the best words in this case come from Downie himself: "Wheat kings and pretty things, wait and see what tomorrow brings."