The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #13/250: Wheat Kings by The Tragically Hip

The stories behind great Canadian songs about great Canadian places and events.

Gail Miller wearing her Nursing uniform in 1969.

At 6:30 a.m. on a January morning in 1969, Saskatoon nursing student Gail Miller stepped out into the bone-chilling -40 degree winter air as she set out for her shift at the hospital. The bus stop was two blocks from her apartment. So, Miller wrapped herself up warmly, tucked her head down into her chest and took the shortest route possible to the bus stop through a well-traveled alleyway one block from home. Several hours later, her lifeless body was found in that alleyway. Miller had been sexually assaulted, stabbed over a dozen times and left to silently bleed out into the snow. It would take the Canadian justice system over three decades to determine that Gail Miller was killed by a serial rapist for the crime of walking while female. At the time, the investigation into her death would set off a chain reaction of events that would impact the lives of many people, including one man who holds the infamous record for the longest length of time served due to a wrongful criminal conviction, and one of Canada’s most famous bands, who would write a hit song based on this event and how it forever linked the cities of Saskatoon and Winnipeg together. That man was David Milgaard. The band was the Tragically Hip and the song was called “Wheat Kings”.

David Milgaard.

As Gail Miller was taking her final breaths in that alleyway in Saskatoon, a few blocks away, three teenagers from Winnipeg were having a rough start to their morning as well. While their problems were nothing compared to what Gail Miller was experiencing, the trio were nonetheless not happy. They had left Winnipeg a few days ago to escape what they perceived was the restrictive nature of having to follow family rules and the lack of opportunities for fun that Winnipeg presented to them. The three teens were David Milgaard, Ron Wilson and Nichol John. On that cold January morning, they discovered one of the facts of life on the Prairies in winter…their car would not start because of the cold. Being rambunctious teens, they were not quiet about their troubles, cursing loudly and trying the engine over and over again. At such an early time in the morning, their actions annoyed those locals in nearby homes who were attempting to sleep. After failing to start the car, the trio broke off and headed in different directions in search of someone who could give their car a boost.

When Saskatoon police arrived at Gail Miller’s crime scene a few hours into the morning, they quickly found evidence of blood, semen and pubic hair at, on and around her dead body. They managed to even locate a bloody paring knife that was shoved underneath her body by her killer. If such a crime had happened today, police would, no doubt, take the samples of semen and blood and perform a DNA analysis on it. They would then interview various suspects and take a DNA sample from them. This would allow them to compare the DNA found at the murder scene with that of each suspect. Hopefully, this would result in a match and the killer’s identity would have revealed itself. However, in 1969, DNA technology did not exist. Consequently, Saskatoon police bagged their evidence and then proceeded to do some old-fashioned investigative work by knocking on the doors of those who lived in the vicinity of the alleyway in which Gail Miller was murdered. When the police interviewed those who lived nearby, many spoke of a group of young people who were making a lot of noise at that early hour of the morning. They gave descriptions of the three youths to police who, in turn, put out an All Points Bulletin (an APB) across Canada to see if anyone had seen the trio since that January morning. As it turned out, David Milgaard had made it all the way to British Columbia by the time the APB was broadcast on the local television news. He had been completely unaware that anything as grisly as a murder had happened while he and his friends were looking for help with their car. But Milgaard knew from the news reports that he and his friends were considered suspects so he turned himself in to the local BC police so that he could clear his name and help Saskatoon police eliminate him as a suspect so they could focus on catching the real killer. Unbeknownst to Milgaard, it was to be the beginning of a thirty plus year odyssey to clear his name.

As one can imagine, the death of Gail Miller shocked the community of Saskatoon. Pressure mounted quickly to find her killer so that residents could go back to feeling safe in their homes and neighbourhoods. When Milgaard turned himself in, he quickly identified Wilson and John as his traveling companions that day so they were quickly rounded up as well. Because the police were under great public pressure, they applied a lot of force upon the three teenagers during interrogation. When it became clear that it was Milgaard who had walked off for help that morning in the direction where Miller’s body lay, the focus of the interrogations turned to pinning the blame on him. Even though neither Wilson nor John believed that their friend had anything to do with the murder, they both ended up giving statements to the police that pointed the finger of blame at Milgaard. So much so that he was officially charged with Gail Miller’s murder and held in custody to await trial. At that trial, Wilson and John repeated their false statements. Neighbours testified that they saw Milgaard heading toward the alleyway and that he was upset and cursing loudly. Milgaard never testified in his own defense. He was charged with murder and sentenced to life in prison. The Saskatoon police crowed about how quickly they had found their man. Gail Miller’s family expressed their gratitude for such expeditious efforts. The city of Saskatoon breathed a sigh of relief. The world continued to turn. David Milgaard began to serve his time in prison.

David Milgaard as he appeared on the CBC investigative journalism show, “The Fifth Estate”. Gillian Findlay was the reporter assigned to cover his story.

From the very first moment that he arrived in his cell, David Milgaard protested his innocence. Over the next thirty years, Milgaard and his family would write countless letters to lawyers, politicians, news reporters…anyone who they thought would help to reopen the investigation. Even though David Milgaard was a rebellious teenager, his mother knew (as mothers do) that he was not a violent young man. She became the public symbol of his protest, even going so far as to approach then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at a campaign event to plead her son’s case. He referred her to Justice Minister Kim Campbell who, in turn, launched an investigation which ended up claiming that Milgaard had been given a fair trial and there was nothing she could do. Milgaard’s appeal ended up all the way in the Supreme Court of Canada. But, he lost that case, too, as the Justices only looked to see whether or not there had been any procedural missteps along the way during the trial. There were not. So, Milgaard’s appeal was denied. One of the things that ended up tipping the scales of justice in Milgaard’s favour was an investigative journalism show on the CBC called “The FIfth Estate”. It was on this show that Milgaard’s case was given its first real public airing. The investigation done throughout this show indicated that there was plenty of reason to believe that Gail Miller’s killer was still at large and that the wrong man was languishing in prison. As this show was airing, the Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip were putting on a show in Winnipeg. David Milgaard’s mother asked for a meeting with the band to tell them her story. The Hip granted her a meeting and listened to her tell MIlgaard’s life story. Lead singer Gord Downie would leave that meeting with the inspiration to write a song about Milgaard and about the faith and love he felt from Milgaard’s mother that day. He also wanted to talk a bit about the history of the places that were connected in this story. Consequently, the song “Wheat Kings” opens with two lines that draw from the history of this part of Canada and which bind Winnipeg and Saskatoon together:

The Tragically Hip.

Sundown on the Paris of the prairies,

Wheat kings, all their treasures buried.”

Let’s take the opening line first. Waaaaay back when the Hudson’s Bay Company was leading the westward expansion into the wilds of Canada, land agents were charged with the task of encouraging settlers to come from Eastern Canada or from Europe to settle in these new communities that the company had established. In bringing settlers to these areas, the HBC hoped to create a workforce and a marketplace, all at the same time. They also hoped to solidify their claim to the land by discouraging the Indigenous Peoples who already lived there from coming back in any significant numbers. Each land agent was given a commission based upon each and every settler they managed to attract to these new settlements. Thus, many land agents resorted to fanciful advertising tactics in order to lure new settlers. As a result, Winnipeg was once referred to as being “the Paris of the prairies” by these land agents.

As for the second line, the prairie winters cause the growing season to be significantly shorter, so wheat farmers had to develop a strain of wheat that could grow more quickly. The type of wheat they managed to develop was called Marquis wheat. This wheat could grow twice as quickly as earlier varieties and survive droughts and cold snaps, too. As you may know, the term “marquis” denotes nobility. Thus, when The Hip sang of “Wheat kings, all their treasures buried” they were referring to the prairie wheat farmers and their new super wheat seed. Just like that, the song is two lines old and already Winnipeg and Saskatoon have been historically linked. The remainder of the song touches upon the atmosphere of the area during the time of Miller’s death and concludes with the line about the news of Milgaard’s exoneration coming via the CBC which, as you now know, was a tip of the hat to the CBC show, The Fifth Estate, that helped investigate Milgaard’s claims and made the case that a new trial was actually warranted.

A new trial was held almost thirty years after Milgaard’s initial conviction. Both Wilson and John recanted their testimony at this new trial. However, the biggest breakthrough came when the wife of a man named Larry Fisher came forward claiming that her husband was probably the killer. Apparently, she raised her suspicions with police in 1969 but her claims were never investigated. As it was, Fisher was a serial rapist and had already had several rapes against his name when he found Miller walking in that Saskatoon alleyway on that frigid January morning. At first, Fisher refused to admit that he had killed Miller but DNA technology linked him to the crime scene (and, at the same time, proved Milgaard’s innocence) and the case was officially solved. David Milgaard was released from prison after serving over thirty years for a crime he never committed. As a free man, Milgaard worked tirelessly to see reforms enacted in the criminal justice system so that others who claimed to be wrongfully convicted, like him, would have avenues of recourse available to them. Such reforms have been announced by current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In the end, much was lost because of the events in January, 1969, in Saskatoon. David Milgaard lost thirty years of freedom. His family lost the freedom to enjoy their lives as they were forced to fight endlessly for their son because no one else seemed to be on his side. But, in the end, David Milgaard was released from prison and completely exonerated. He was given a cash settlement from the Saskatchewan government. The Tragically Hip were able to write a song that has become one of their most popular tunes. They even had the opportunity to sing it live to David Milgaard and his family on one of their tour stops in Winnipeg after his release. As for the family of Gail Miller, they lost the most of all. Not only did they have their daughter stolen from them in the cruelest manner imaginable, they had to relive her death again and again because of how the criminal justice system rushed to judgment and unfairly convicted David Milgaard. To their credit, they have met with Mr. Milgaard and have offered him their support so that both families can begin the process of healing and of recovery. It was a long road to travel, but in the end, justice appears to have been served.

The link to the video for the song “Wheat Kings” by The Tragically Hip can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Tragically Hip can be found here.

The link to a documentary about the Miller/Milgaard story can be found here.

The link to the official website for the city of Winnipeg can be found here.

The link to the official website for the city of Saskatoon can be found here.

**The photo header at the top of this post shows the alleyway in Saskatoon in which Gail Miller was assaulted and murdered (as it appears today). The photo is a screen capture from Google Earth.

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