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In this file photo, Joyce Milgaard holds a photo of Clayton Johnson, the Nova Scotia man convicted of first-degree murder in the 1989 death of his wife, at a news conference in Halifax.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

At the beginning of her memoir, Joyce Milgaard recalls the moment two police detectives arrived at her home late one afternoon in May, 1969, and asked her, “Are you David Milgaard’s mother?”

It was the beginning of a saga that would come to define both their lives, making David Milgaard one of the country’s most famous wrongful convictions, and Joyce the very symbol of a mother’s unceasing fight against injustice for her child.

She would devote the next 30 years to winning his freedom, and then fighting for his exoneration and compensation: a tireless battle that included reinvestigating the case herself and identifying the real killer, and ultimately, holding justice officials and government to account.

Primly dressed with neatly coiffed hair and schoolteacher eyeglasses, Ms. Milgaard seemed – as one news story noted – “more like the average grandmother” than a crusader. But those who underestimated her did so at their peril. Her singsong voice could harden with steely resolve when she talked about her son, and she was single-minded, relentless and unapologetic in her fight for him. While those qualities won her few fans in the systems she accused, she earned the respect and admiration of many more around the country, and changed forever the life of her son and other wrongfully convicted.

James Driskell, centre, leaves court in Winnipeg on Nov. 28, 2003 with his mother Florence, right, and Joyce Milgaard, left, after he was granted bail pending a federal review of his first-degree murder conviction in the 1991 death of Perry Dean Harder.Brian Donogh/WPGS

“Joyce Milgaard fought everyone for me,” David Milgaard said in an interview with The Globe and Mail in May, 2019. “Without her, I would still be in prison rotting away.”

As a Globe editorial had noted a decade earlier, “Joyce Milgaard did everything to free her son David from prison in Saskatchewan but dig a tunnel for him with her bare hands.”

Ms. Milgaard died Saturday afternoon after a long illness, lawyer James Lockyer told The Globe. She was 89. She leaves her children, David, Chris, Susan and Maureen.

Joyce Milgaard was born in Ontario in 1930, the youngest of four children in a sometimes troubled family.

“I would probably have been considered an abused child by today’s terms because my father used to beat me when he was drunk,” she said in A Mother’s Story: The Fight to Free My Son David, co-written with reporter Peter Edwards and published in 1999. “All I would have to do then was say the slightest thing wrong and I would get a beating.”

Ms. Milgaard started working at 11, lying about her age to get a full-time job at a weaving mill. In her teens, she found work as a switchboard operator at a hospital and then on the phones at The Toronto Star, where she sometimes helped reporters find people and convince them to talk – skills that would later prove valuable in the fight to free her son.

Joyce Milgaard gives her son, David, support during a news conference on April 14, 1992, at the Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba.REUTER

Ms. Milgaard said she had a wild streak in those years, describing herself as “a hard drinker and a real partygoer” who smoked two packs a day and “could swear and drink with the best of them.” She was engaged multiple times before settling down with her husband, Lorne Milgaard, in Winnipeg.

Her lifestyle changed when she became a Christian Scientist after a colleague appeared to cure her migraine with prayer, and she remained devout throughout the rest of her life, including training and practising as a Christian Science nurse.

The family was living in Langenburg, Sask., in 1969, when David, then 16, was arrested and charged with the murder of nursing assistant Gail Miller.

Ms. Milgaard told The Globe in 1997 that she may have had “just a flicker of uncertainty” at first, but once she knew he and his friends had no money for drugs or alcohol at the time, she was convinced of his innocence.

“I never doubted my son,” she said then. “A mother knows, and I knew. I just knew.”

While her son awaited trial, Ms. Milgaard moved to Saskatoon to be near him, at one point living at the Y and working nights at a restaurant, taking him comic books and food in the mornings

I never doubted my son. A mother knows, and I knew. I just knew

Joyce Milgaard

He was convicted in January, 1970, and while Ms. Milgaard immediately began working to have the decision overturned, her efforts escalated significantly when he was shot by police in 1980, after escaping from custody while out on a pass.

Ms. Milgaard later said the shooting was a turning point for her, the moment she gave up hope in the protections of the police and justice system and realized that to free her son, she’d have to find the real killer herself.

"I just felt so helpless with David not being able to walk, that I just wanted to get in there and do something," she said. "And I think it helped me to get out and really try, because I felt like a failure of a mom. I really did."

Ms. Milgaard, who previously worked in sales and as a property manager, now became a detective. She offered a $10,000 reward for information and started aggressively hunting down witnesses and conducting new interviews with them, even as she learned police were telling people not to talk to her.

After receiving a tip about violent sexual offender Larry Fisher, Ms. Milgaard tracked down and approached both his mother and ex-wife, as well as six other women who had been sexually assaulted by him.

“I’m doing what I have to do,” Ms. Milgaard told The Fifth Estate in 1990. “If they’d done a proper investigation in the first place, none of this would be happening today.”

She put everything she had into the fight, selling her car and her home, spending her vacations at the prison, sometimes so consumed she forgot to eat. Her daughter Maureen once estimated her mother spent 99 per cent of her waking moments working on the case.

Guy Paul Morin looks on as Joyce Milgaard, mother of falsely accused son David and founder of the Association for the Wrongly Accused, holds a press release calling for a public inquiry in the Morin case at a news conference in Toronto.Moe Doiron/The Canadian Press

Ms. Milgaard got prominent defence lawyer Hersh Wolch onside after showing up at his office with her last $2,000 and an offer to give him her fur coat, the only possession she had left of any value. Mr. Wolch gave the file to David Asper, then a young lawyer, who took on the case.

Joyce Milgaard said she found inspiration in the story of David and Goliath, and hers was truly such a tale: one person persevering in the face of a system stacked against her, believing, as she said in 1992, “If I just keep looking, we would find the thing that freed David.”

But while she gathered reams of evidence calling his conviction into question – including false witness statements, another suspect and questions around the time frame of the attack – convincing officials to look at the evidence she had gathered proved a significant hurdle.

In one highly publicized exchange in 1990, Ms. Milgaard tried unsuccessfully to give a report about the case to then-justice minister Kim Campbell, who brushed by and refused to accept it. The scene only escalated Ms. Milgaard’s efforts. That night, she wrote a song, Please Madame Minister, which she performed and sent to radio stations across the country.

The perceived snub received coverage around the country, which Ms. Milgaard later said helped galvanize public opinion on her side. At a hastily arranged vigil outside meetings that Brian Mulroney was attending about Meech Lake in Winnipeg in 1991, the then-prime minister stopped to speak with Ms. Milgaard.

He told the Winnipeg Free Press later that the meeting inspired him to take a closer look at the case.

We all have mothers, but even the most devoted and loving of mothers would not continue their crusade for 22 years if there was any doubt in her mind

Brian Mulroney

“There was just something so forlorn but very loving about a woman standing alone on a very cold evening on behalf of her son,” he said then. “We all have mothers, but even the most devoted and loving of mothers would not continue their crusade for 22 years if there was any doubt in her mind.”

While Ms. Milgaard would later correct Mr. Mulroney’s recollection – they met at noon on a hot and sunny day – the encounter clearly had an impact. David Milgaard was released from prison in 1992, after Ms. Campbell ordered a Supreme Court review of the case.

Ms. Milgaard did not stop there. Instead, she then turned her attention to the fight to have her son exonerated and compensated, and she demanded a full inquiry into the case “for all the future David Milgaards.”

Mr. Milgaard was exonerated through DNA testing in 1997 and he received $10-million in compensation. The inquiry into his wrongful conviction concluded in 2008.

While the final report of that inquiry was, at points, critical of Ms. Milgaard’s efforts – including accusing her of releasing inflammatory information and hurting the reputation of justice officials and the justice system – Ms. Milgaard was unconcerned and unapologetic.

"I did what I felt was necessary at the time and it got the results that we wanted," she told reporters.

Joyce Milgaard and Guy Paul Morin hold hands in victory on July 18, 1997. TIBOR KOLLEY/GLOBE AND MAIL.Tibor Kolley*/The Globe and Mail

She went on to work for other Canadians who were later found to have been wrongfully convicted, including joining the fight to free Guy Paul Morin in the 1990s, after being approached by Mr. Morin’s mother.

Ms. Milgaard was one of the founders of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, now Innocence Canada, which has so far helped exonerate 23 wrongfully convicted people in Canada.

“She was called ‘the mother of Canada’ for a long time, and so she was – she was a strong, devout ... powerful, beautiful woman,” Mr. Lockyer, one of the group’s founding directors, said Saturday. “She had a presence to her that really was exciting and also stunning, and just made you feel that if you were going to be in her presence, you had to be a good person. Goodness was all around her.”

Mr. Lockyer said he can vividly recall the day they received the DNA results that would ultimately exonerate Mr. Milgaard. Joyce was flying at the time, and Mr. Lockyer and Mr. Morin “drove like the wind” to get to the airport to meet her when her flight landed.

“Guy Paul told her the news, and I was right there when it happened," Mr. Lockyer said. “It was quite something.”

On Saturday, Mr. Lockyer said he believes her legacy will be “how one person can change the course of justice in a country, through belief and determination, perseverance and power. She had that power. That’s her legacy to me.”

“I feel uncomfortable when people say that I am a heroic person,” Ms. Milgaard wrote in her memoir. “Circumstances create heroes, and David’s ordeal forced me to grow up. … I learned to do my very best and leave the rest to God, so that I could wake up fresh every morning, ready to start again.”