‘No surrender’: Remembering Joyce Milgaard’s legacy of faith and love

By | March 28, 2020

Joyce Milgaard, who spent decades fighting for the exoneration of her wrongfully convicted son, David Milgaard, died Saturday, March 21, 2020, at the age of 89.

Former CBC journalist Lesley Hughes recalls Joyce Milgaard’s impact on the world, and the legacy she leaves behind.

When I first heard that Joyce Milgaard had died at 89, I remembered my long-ago, miserable stay in a Winnipeg hospital. 

I was in serious pain from an injury, waiting for surgery, brooding over the possibility of disability. 

On the wall at the foot of my bed there was a bulletin board on which I had tacked two photos clipped from newspapers: Che Guevara and Joyce Milgaard. 

Few visitors had the nerve to ask, :Joyce and Che? What?”

The Cuban revolutionary and the Christian Science nurse had little in common. History had disposed of Che long ago, while Joyce was very much alive and kicking.

But there they were together passionate reformers, smiling, watching me from the wall, every time I woke up.

Joyce had first emerged as a small, motherly voice as the 1970s got rolling. That’s when it became clear to her that her son David, still a teenager, was headed for a lifetime in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit.

Joyce was, after all, the mother of the perp and therefore incapable of seeing her son as guilty.– Lesley Hughes

Joyce was no social activist. 

In fact, she was more of a Madonna-style material girl, born to party. And she had no apparent resources to fight for her son’s innocence. 

As she told me in an interview for Chatelaine magazine, she thought the transparent absurdity of the case against David should be enough to create a public demand to clear him.

She had no idea what she was up against.

Joyce Milgaard, who died on March 21, had a ‘revolutionary message: no surrender,’ recalls Lesley Hughes. (Geoff Howe/The Canadian Press)

For a long time, her attempts to interest the media in David’s plight went nowhere.

Joyce was, after all, the mother of the perp and therefore perceived as incapable of seeing her son as guilty.

And she was unapologetically religious, a committed practitioner of Christian Science, which further reduced her credibility with journalists (except for the few who worked for the so-called “faith” page).

She was also unaware that she was asking, in my opinion, a predominantly conservative Canadian media to take her side against the most powerful legal and political establishments in Canada.

As one media colleague quietly told me, “To come up swinging for Joyce was not a good career move. It made too many important people look … baaad.”

A successful strategist

Nevertheless, I believe that Joyce Milgaard became possibly the most successful media strategist in Canadian history. 

She learned the names of the nation’s most influential storytellers. She built relationships with them, one at a time, mostly by making sure everybody got an exclusive story, as Milgaard news unfolded.

She probably had a pie chart on the wall. 

Joyce Milgaard makes a phone call after the release of the report into the wrongful conviction of her son, David Milgaard, in September 2008. The report praised her ‘epic struggle’ in seeking David’s release during his more than 22 years behind bars. (Geoff Howe/The Canadian Press)

Watching her, I was reminded of a genteel lady on a park bench throwing crumbs to the pigeons. Eventually the pigeons, impressed by her reliability, did not have to be summoned. They simply came to her.

I was one of them. 

Joyce called me one busy day in 1991, with an invitation to cover an upcoming candlelight vigil for David at Stony Mountain penitentiary. I apologized that I couldn’t make it and we hung up. 

This ordinary woman … turned Canada’s criminal justice system on its head.– Lesley Hughes

A few minutes later, hating myself for taking the time from another story, I called her back.

I told her to forget the penitentiary: Prime Minister Brian Mulroney would be in town and she could approach him directly. After all, in my opinion, he’d just witnessed his then-justice minister, Kim Campbell, humiliated for literally running away from Joyce when she’d earlier approached her.

FROM MAY 1990: Joyce Milgaard snubbed by Kim Campbell

The federal justice minister brushes off Joyce Milgaard’s efforts to get justice for her son David. 1:59

Joyce had nothing to lose.

Then I forgot about it. But Joyce didn’t.

The next morning in a local coffee shop, I opened the Globe and Mail and there on the entire top of the front page was an image of Joyce and the prime minister surrounded by candles, looking deeply into each other’s eyes. He promised her he’d look into the case, and he did. 

It was a turning point in Joyce’s long crusade.

I celebrated that morning for Joyce, but cursed myself roundly for setting up an angelic photo op for a politician.

‘No surrender to fear, despair, cynicism’

It took about 30 years to clear and compensate David Milgaard.

But at the end of it, the Supreme Court of Canada had overturned his conviction. 

At the end of it, this ordinary woman with no education to speak of, had not only redeemed her son, but had turned Canada’s criminal justice system on its head.

At the end of it, there was a reminder that truth, justice and freedom are not a given in Canada, but they are possible.

With the news of Joyce Milgaard’s death, I see again that bulletin board in my hospital room. 

I see, under her smile, what I saw then — Joyce Milgaard’s gentle but revolutionary message: no surrender. 

No surrender to fear, despair, cynicism — and especially to self-pity.

Surrender may certainly be tempting, but it will not liberate you. 

Only faith and love can do that.

How interesting that her death delivers that message exactly when we need to hear it, as an unimaginable pandemic threatens to engulf us. 

How very thankful we should be to remember it.

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