Wrongfully convicted Canadian David Milgaard was on hand in the B.C. Peace this past weekend to help end the stigma against mental health.
Milgaard, a prolific advocate for mental health, prisoner rights, and the wrongfully convicted walked alongside residents and spoke at the event on Oct. 3 in Spirit Park in Chetwynd after a 28-kilometre trek from Moberly Lake.
Milgaard spent 23 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of the 1969 murder of nursing student Gail Miller, and says his time at Millhaven Penitentiary was a living nightmare.
“I strongly believe that everyone caught up in the Canadian criminal justice system is in serious trouble, there’s not much love and care inside those walls. I know how well people can do when surrounded by care and love, and we all know well they can fail without it,” he said.
“We cannot let these people be disqualified from life either.”
Milgaard went on to speak about his worsening mental health and multiple suicide attempts, swallowing wire, slitting his wrists, drinking poison, and being shot by police when unlawfully at large on one occasion.
“When you are accused of a horrible crime you did not commit, there is one reality that hurts you the most – you are torn apart inside by the way others feel about you. It really matters to you that they feel you are guilty, they believe you did something you could never do," Milgaard said. "It made me sick inside to believe others thought of me as the kind of person to have raped and murdered another human being."
Despite the wrongful conviction, Milgaard says he saw an opportunity to be a voice for others, noting they are just as human as everyone else.
“Prison is a horrible place, and the longer you’re inside, the worse it gets,” Milgaard said. “I wonder how many thousands of Canadians have been wrongfully convicted of crimes less serious than murder, but end their sentences in sadness and silence because they knew their cases would never be heard.”
The mental health walk was started by Chetwynd local Stan Fraser, who completed a walk from Fort Nelson to Chetwynd last year to raise awareness about depression and anxiety. He maintains the stigma can only be beaten together, one step at a time.
District of Chetwynd Mayor Allen Courtoreille completed the walk this year.
“We’re here today for the mental part of our being. Thank you all for contributing to this whole day,” said Courtoreille. "It’s very deep, it gets to the root of where we live and how we live, and how we wake up in the morning."
Tom Summer, Local Journalism Initiative, Alaska Highway News