When Wilma Derksen first had to attend criminal-court hearings for the man accused of killing her 13-year-old daughter, Candace, her only refuge was the camper van her sister drove from B.C. and parked near the Manitoba Legislative Building.
During breaks in the court process, when she needed to leave the Winnipeg courthouse and regroup with her family, Derksen would dash across the street and sit in the van. The weather was warm, and she could spend a few minutes outside, coming to terms with what it was like to see the accused killer for the first time.
"When you’re in the face of trauma, there’s such a big fear that you can’t eat, sleep, have good conversations or do anything — your mind kind of shuts down. So getting off of the (courthouse) site meant I was getting out of the trauma cycle," Derksen said.
"Just to go out of the building into this van and have my sister there, that was important."
Years later, her dream of building a safe space for other victims of crime is a step closer to reality as construction is set to begin this week to renovate Candace House. In its Kennedy Street location, one block from the Law Courts Building, Candace House is to undergo renovations starting Thursday, and is expected to open in the summer.
The space is meant to be a home-like place, where survivors of crime and victims’ families can take a break, have a snack and decompress during the day while they attend court. After it opens its doors, Candace House may also offer workshops on topics that affect victims. The facility is set to work with Eyaa-Keen Healing Centre, which provides Indigenous-focused victim support.
Candace House executive director Cecilly Hildebrand said the non-profit organization has raised 75 per cent of the $330,000 it needs to complete the construction. The renovations are expected to be finished in June.
The organization has received some money from both levels of government and has also applied for financial grants. It’s aiming to fundraise $670,000 to cover its operating budgets over the next three to five years. In a statement, Manitoba Justice said it has supported Candace House through its victims services program, totalling $70,000 over the past three years.
At a news conference Tuesday morning to announce the upcoming construction and kick off a more public fundraising campaign, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, member of Parliament for Winnipeg Centre, and provincial Justice Minister Heather Stefanson spoke in support of Candace House.
Ouellette said such projects are "desperately" needed in Manitoba and across the country.
"If you ever need anything from the federal government, I will do my absolute best, day in and day out, to try and find the supports that you need in order to see something like this come to completion, and to make sure that it thrives," the MP said.
Stefanson said Manitoba Justice’s victim-services program will partner with Candace House, and said it fits with the criminal justice "modernization strategy" the province announced last week.
"A key part of the strategy is targeting our resources to the prosecution of serious criminal cases and working with victims organizations to manage change in the system," Stefanson said. "Our government is committed to building safer communities and ensuring timely access to justice for all Manitobans. This means that victims will always be supported as they get the timely access to justice that they deserve."
It’s been nearly six months since Mark Edward Grant was acquitted of second-degree murder in Candace Derksen’s death. The 13-year-old went missing on her way home from a Winnipeg school in November 1984, and was found frozen and tied up in an Elmwood-area lumberyard shed.
Grant was arrested as a suspect in 2007, and underwent a trial. His subsequent second-degree murder conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court, which led to a retrial last year.
Dealing with the acquittal taught Wilma Derksen that support for victims is necessary, regardless of the outcome of an offender-focused criminal-justice system. Seeing her vision come to life, she said Tuesday, felt comforting. "Like a visit with my daughter."
"This is a part of justice. This is part of honouring Candace. It goes back to, I will never have the perfect justice, because nobody can bring Candace back," Derksen said. "These kinds of moments are something that give her death meaning and memory."
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
Updated on Tuesday, March 13, 2018 at 4:23 PM CDT: Corrects information regarding fundraising