The Tragically Hip Pay Tribute to "Wheat Kings" Inspiration David Milgaard

"We kept in touch with David after his release and were always impressed by his dedication to helping those who, like him, had been wrongly imprisoned"
The Tragically Hip Pay Tribute to 'Wheat Kings' Inspiration David Milgaard
The Tragically Hip's "Wheat Kings" — the beloved acoustic-led number from their celebrated 1992 album Fully Completely — references the story of David Milgaard, a Canadian man who spent 23 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. Now, the band are paying tribute to the late justice advocate, who passed away this weekend.

The Hip's Gord Sinclair wrote in a statement shared via the band's social channels this afternoon, "We're saddened to learn of David Milgaard's death this past weekend. We had the great fortune to meet his mother Joyce and sister Susan on our second or third time through Winnipeg. They brought David's plight to our attention and we were incredibly moved by their love, faith and belief in him. It was inspiring. He was inspiring."

The band's note of tribute comes alongside a clip of Milgaard discussing "Wheat Kings" with late frontman Gord Downie, captured in the band's 1993 concert film Heksenketel, which chronicled that year's edition of their coast-to-coast traveling festival Another Roadside Attraction.

In the clip, Milgaard says he first heard "Wheat Kings" via a jukebox, and recalls "plugging quarters in all day long" to keep listening. He remarks that out of all 12 songs on Fully Completely, "Wheat Kings" was the "more sombre, more sincere" of the set.

"We kept in touch with David after his release and were always impressed by his dedication to helping those who, like him, had been wrongly imprisoned," Sinclair continued. "He worked tirelessly, petitioning the federal government to establish a permanent independent commission to review the applications of folks in his situation. It is time for the government of Canada to act on this idea and establish such a body. It is the right thing to honour this quiet, humble and great Canadian."

In January 1969, 16-year-old Milgaard was on a road trip across Canada with two friends, and had stopped in Saskatoon to visit friend Albert Cadrain. During their stay, 20-year-old nursing student Gail Miller was found dead in a snowbank near the Cadrain home. In May of that year, with a warrant issued for his arrest, Milgaard turned himself in to the RCMP in Prince George.

"I said well sure, I didn't do anything. I had no real concern to do it." Milgaard recalled to CTV News Calgary in 2020. "I didn't feel very uncomfortable. I'm just glad that I was trying to help." In 1970, Milgaard was convicted of Miller's rape and murder, and was incarcerated from the ages of 16 to 39.

Milgaard was released from prison in April 1992, following the Supreme Court's review of newly unearthed evidence in his case, which led to the identification of new suspect Larry Fisher. In 1997, DNA evidence linked Fisher — a serial rapist who had previously served over two decades in prison for assaults in Western Canada — to Miller's murder, exonerating Milgaard.

In Bob Mersereau's 2010 book Top 100 Canadian Singles, Downie shared of "Wheat Kings," "[It's] 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."

CBC News reports that Milgaard died in a Calgary hospital this weekend from complications related to pneumonia, citing sources close to the family. He was 69.

The Tragically Hip recently announced new concert album Live at the Roxy. Elsewhere, a new career-spanning documentary on the band is set for a 2024 release.