On Jan. 19, 1985, two days after his daughter’s body was found, Cliff Derksen sat before a bank of news cameras and microphones and expressed a deep compassion for her unknown killer.
“We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives,” he said. His wife, Wilma, was sitting at his side. “I don’t believe the person who did this had loving parents or a circle of friends who thought the world of him, or he wouldn’t have done a deed like this.”
It was the first outward, public expression of a forgiveness so profound it would shape and define Cliff Derksen’s life.
The disappearance and death of 13-year-old Candace Derksen had deeply upset and disturbed the city of Winnipeg, and made headlines around the country. To see her grieving parents immediately offering grace to their daughter’s murderer was shocking, even radical. So unusual and unexpected it was almost impossible to comprehend.
“I was struck again and again at how pervasive the concept of forgiveness had been in my life. It was right there in the beginning,” Mr. Derksen wrote, in an autobiography shared in blog posts after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in late February.
“The theme started with my childhood growing up on a farm and being misunderstood as an artist by my parents, being bullied by my peers, even experiencing rejection from my church – which I later learned to forgive, let go and move on,” he wrote.
“This again was brought to a head when Candace was murdered and especially when I was accused of murdering her … I only found my way back to sanity through forgiveness, I know for a fact I would not have this peace now in facing my own death if I hadn’t embraced forgiveness on every level.”
Clifford Raymond Derksen was born in Saskatoon on Oct. 27, 1945, the oldest of four children of Ernest and Mary Derksen. In his writing, Mr. Derksen described an idyllic early life growing up on the family farm in the Great Deer area north of Borden, a Mennonite settlement in Saskatchewan.
The family had crops and livestock and lived without electricity or running water, offering a childhood Mr. Derksen recalled as “a life of endless uninterrupted days.” He attended the one-room Hoffnungsfeld School for his elementary education, and later graduated from Borden’s high school.
But while it may have been an idyllic early life, it was not always easy. Mr. Derksen struggled with a learning disability, and had a difficult time with classmates at school. His parents were devout Mennonites, and his father could be strict and punishing. Mr. Derksen would later write that his natural affinity for art and performance was at odds with what he described as a “pietistic culture that valued practicality, simplicity, quietness and stoicism above all things.”
He met Wilma Bergmann while they attended Bethany Bible Institute in Saskatchewan in the late 1960s, and after wooing her with his fun, outgoing personality and good humour – and a hand-drawn cartoon of a professor with an earring – they married at Greendale Mennonite Brethren Church in British Columbia in the fall of 1969.
The couple moved to Winnipeg in 1970 while Mr. Derksen was attending Mennonite Brethren Bible College, and would have three children: Candace, Odia and Syras. They moved around for a bit – including a period working as missionaries in northern Manitoba – but ultimately returned to Winnipeg, where, in November, 1984, 13-year-old Candace was abducted by a stranger while she walked home from school.
The investigation into Candace’s murder and the trials for her accused killer would span more than three decades.
“We had a rude awakening because we just said we were going to forgive, and we didn’t know how to talk about it, and we really didn’t know what it meant ourselves,” Mr. Derksen told me when I interviewed him for a feature in 2017, as the convicted sex offender who had been charged in their daughter’s murder was on trial for the second time.
“Our big thing was just we were just going to forgive whoever it was. We just were going to forgive. We didn’t know how or where or when, how this was going to happen, it was sort of a north star we put out there.”
In the weeks that followed, there were stories devoted to how and if the kind of forgiveness they’d expressed was even possible. A poll showed the vast majority of those questioned didn’t agree with the Derksen’s desire to forgive their daughter’s killer. Some looked upon their reaction with deep suspicion, as though they didn’t care about Candace, or worse.
“There were no tears,” one story noted, after the news conference. “Not even a tremor in their voices.”
This suspicion was particularly focused on Mr. Derksen, a shadow that lingered despite ample evidence he had not killed his daughter, and which clung to him for decades – long after police and a polygraph declared him an innocent and truthful man.
In interviews with me and others, Mr. Derksen was open about his struggles, about the effort it took to move through periods of deep anger and grief over his daughter’s death, and to keep pursuing the forgiveness he and his wife had decided would save them.
“The thing about forgiveness is you have to go to the hard places. You have to be ready to be courageous,” Mr. Derksen told me in 2017. “I didn’t do this overnight. I was really trying to go to all the bad places, and the ugly stuff, and really address it.”
In the wake of such a profound tragedy, there was much to forgive. From police who initially dismissed Candace as a runaway and focused on Mr. Derksen as a suspect, to forgiving themselves and each other. And, most of all, forgiving a killer who never accepted responsibility, and who may not even have been sorry.
“If I said to 99.9 per cent of humanity, ‘A very terrible person is going to murder your child, do you think forgiveness is possible?’ they would say no, because they’ve never seen it,” said the writer Malcolm Gladwell, speaking in a 2018 documentary film about Mr. Derksen, Suspended and the Art of Forgiveness. Mr. Gladwell wrote a chapter about the Derksens in his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.
“It’s inconceivable that you could forgive in that circumstance until you meet someone who’s done it,” Mr. Gladwell said. “So when you meet someone like that, and you understand that these kinds of inconceivable things can be done by ordinary people, that expands your universe.”
The man charged in Candace’s murder was found guilty at one trial, and spent 10 years in prison before the Court of Appeal overturned the verdict. He was then found not guilty after the second trial, and the Crown decided not to appeal the verdict. It had been 33 years since Candace’s murder, and it was clear the Derksens would not find justice for their daughter’s murder within the legal system.
Mr. Derksen took strength from his religious faith, and developed his own strategies for dealing with his anger and pain, among them memorizing and reciting large portions of the Bible – including the entire story of Jonah – infusing jellybeans with symbolic meaning, and visualizing loading up everything he was angry about and dumping it into the Grand Canyon.
He also found release through art and, after devoting himself to his work in earnest after getting a studio space in 2010, became an accomplished artist and art teacher, using clay sculpture, painting and drawing to express his experiences and struggles. Wilma Derksen says making art “healed his soul.”
In Suspended and the Art of Forgiveness, Mr. Derksen shows the filmmakers a sculpture he’s been working through, an ominous throne of black swords.
“It’s sort of a violent message. That’s really not us, and that’s really not me,” Mr. Derksen said. Instead, he said he’d decided to make a bouquet of swords transforming into white-tinged feathers, a way of “making good out of something bad, changing black to white, giving darkness light.”
Another sculpture shows two hands bound with rope, the way Candace’s were when her body was found. Mr. Derksen said he was going to sculpt Candace’s own hands in the piece, but couldn’t bring himself to do it, and sculpted his own bound hands instead.
“And that’s where it is,” he told the filmmakers. “It’s wishing I could have taken her place.”
Through the years, Mr. Derksen worked a number of jobs – pastor, missionary, camp director, truck driver – before starting First Impressions Janitorial Services in 2003, finding a career and security in the company he ran until his retirement in December, 2021.
After decades in the news, the Derksens were recognizable public figures in Winnipeg, known for what they suffered and the remarkable way they responded to it. Their work after Candace’s death includes funding a pool in her name at Camp Arnes, helping found Child Find Manitoba (now The Canadian Centre for Child Protection), the formation of the charitable Candace Derksen Fund and, most recently, the creation of Candace House, a place for victims and their families to gather and rest during trials, located a short distance from the courthouse in Winnipeg.
Mr. Derksen was diagnosed with terminal cancer in late February, after going to a walk-in clinic for what he thought was a minor health issue. He was admitted to hospital that day, and quickly diagnosed with Stage 4 gallbladder cancer. He died of cancer three months later, on May 22, at the age of 76.
“I think his hope is that his story will show how complicated forgiveness is,” Wilma Derksen told me. “I think the realization throughout his life was that it was so complicated to actually survive, and to forgive anything is a constant, huge journey. And that’s what he wanted his message to be.”
In a blog post shortly before his death, Mr. Derksen mused about the creation of a Forgiveness Center, “where the broken, the angry, the confused, the rejected, the misunderstood can find healing through a genuine forgiveness process.”
“I think the concept itself still seems to be researched because it has been so underrated and misunderstood,” he wrote. “At this point I’m not sure I could even describe the power of forgiveness in everyday common language. All I know is that it really was my saving grace.”
Mr. Derksen leaves his wife, Wilma, their children Odia Derksen Reimer and Syras Derksen, and their three grandchildren, Simeon, Anna and Georgia.