December 7, 2019

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Searing pain, serious purpose

Nearly 33 years since Candace Derksen's shocking death, the young teen lives on, fuelling the fight to protect children because of her relentless mother's work

Director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection Lianna McDonald (left) and the original founder, Wilma Derksen at the Centre for Child Protection in 2015.</p>

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection Lianna McDonald (left) and the original founder, Wilma Derksen at the Centre for Child Protection in 2015.

As the shadows from Thursday’s gentle sun start to grow long, Cecilly Hildebrand slides onto a bench next to the Law Courts, beside a big glass wall. Even after a gruelling day of criminal proceedings, she is beaming: she has happy news to share.

Minutes earlier, in the big second-floor courtroom, defence attorney Saul Simmonds wrapped up his closing arguments in the retrial of Mark Grant, accused of killing Candace Derksen nearly 33 years ago.

Hildebrand, sitting behind Cliff and Wilma Derksen, listened to Simmonds attack the Crown’s DNA evidence. As executive director of Candace House, the family’s new project, she has spent time sitting in court with Candace’s parents before.

Now she is ready to spill her news: after years of preparation, Candace House is just months from opening.

The site, which will be revealed May 31, is just a block from the courts. It will be cosy and private: a place for victims to prepare for a trial, to decompress with support workers or simply to find refuge from stress.

There is no such refuge at the Law Courts, Hildebrand says, just a small room set off a hallway. Candace House will give victims and their families somewhere to relax, away from the gaze of public eyes.

"Everyone needs a place to go," she says. "The system is not great, for trying to assist in healing.... To have it be so close, to have it be right there, we’re very excited to offer something so profound in terms of the impact."

<p>Cecilly Hildebrand, executive director of Candace House, outside the Law Courts.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Cecilly Hildebrand, executive director of Candace House, outside the Law Courts.

When Candace House opens — Hildebrand is planning for the fall — it will build on Candace’s growing legacy. Through her family’s advocacy, the memory of this 13-year-old girl has survived far longer than she was alive.

When Candace vanished after school on Nov. 30, 1984, her disappearance gripped the city. When her body was found six weeks later, frozen and bound inside an equipment shed near Nairn Avenue, thousands mourned.

Today, more than three decades later, police investigators who worked on the case still find it painful to discuss. People who grew up in the mid-1980s remember frightened parents ordering them not to walk home alone.

"One day we were safe, playing on the street, in the fields," recalls Jen Wilson, 42, who grew up on the outskirts of Winnipeg. "The next day, it changed. Everyone was scared: kids, parents, teachers.

"And her case is still in the news," she adds. "I get actual shivers down my spine."

Hildebrand does not share those memories; at 28, she was born five years after Candace was killed. Yet as a child growing up in Steinbach, the case was familiar. Adults would talk about Candace or Cliff and Wilma.

"It’s always been something in the back of our collective consciousness," she says.

She’s found that too, over the years she has worked to make Wilma’s dream for Candace House a reality. Sometimes, when Hildebrand meets with potential sponsors, the charity’s name doesn’t click right away.

In that case, Hildebrand might say: "Are you from Winnipeg? Do you remember Candace Derksen?"

She sees their eyes open wide. Yes, they reply, they remember. They grew up in the same neighbourhood, or went to school with the Derksens’ younger children, or their parents know (or just know about) Cliff and Wilma.

"There are all of these connections," Hildebrand says. "The impact on people is clear. They remember it, and it’s a very distinct memory and shaping experience for them."

Perhaps that is especially true because of how the search for justice persisted. There was Grant’s 2007 arrest, a stunner 23 years after Candace’s disappearance. There was his 2011 conviction, overturned two years later by the Supreme Court of Canada, citing — as Manitoba’s Court of Appeal had — an error made by the trial judge.

Now, that 10-year legal odyssey could finally be coming to an end. Crown prosecutor Brent Davidson delivered his closing arguments Friday, telling Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Karen Simonsen there can be no reasonable doubt of Grant’s guilt and she should convict him — again — of second-degree murder.

It may take Simonsen months to deliver her verdict. When she does, it could be the last time Candace’s full story is heard in court: this chapter, the one about searching for justice, could soon be over.

So, after almost 33 years, two trials and a lifetime of her family’s advocacy, how did Candace change Manitoba?

• • • 

There’s a pretty brick building on Academy Road near the St. James Bridge, tucked between an RCMP forensic lab and the Assiniboine River. Built as an orphanage school in 1917, it later became a residential school for indigenous children.

So there’s a sombre poetry of sorts, in what came after: today, the building houses the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. In some way, these bricks have always borne witness to children alone, or children taken.

Eleven years after the centre moved into this space, it is bursting at the seams. About 50 people come to work here each day, tackling a vast array of projects to combat child sexual exploitation and give hope to its victims.

One wing of the building houses Cybertip.ca, the national child pornography tipline. In 2015-16, it received an average of 3,200 reports per month; staff send takedown notices to Internet providers in their quest to wipe out child porn.

The work goes far beyond that. The centre employs legal experts, educators, case workers. When Christine Wood disappeared last year, her parents often came here to plan the next steps of their heartbreaking search.

"What we’re most proud of is our loyalty to the reason we were set up," executive director Lianna McDonald says. "Countless parents, with whom we’ve walked a very painful walk. We never lose sight of why we’re here."

As she chats in her corner office, McDonald reaches for a copy of Wilma Derksen’s 2002 book, Confronting the Horror. It’s one of McDonald’s favourites; a roadmap of sorts for crime victims, to guide their way through the pain.

McDonald’s copy is carefully tabbed for easy reference, but the centre keeps about 20 new copies of the book on hand at all times. Staff give them to sexual abuse survivors, or to parents who have lost a child to violence.

"You can’t say it any better than Wilma does," McDonald says. "There’s a centring that you get from her words."

In truth, her words are knit through the organization. When centre staff speak about the Derksens, it is by first name and with a quiet reverence: they are here, their work is here, because Wilma and Cliff lost their daughter.

The centre was born in the middle of that search. On Dec. 27, 1984 — three weeks before Candace’s body was found — the Derksens met with a Child Find Saskatchewan representative, to discuss starting a local chapter.

Within months, Wilma and Cliff had assembled a board, cobbled together a budget and launched Child Find Manitoba. The all-volunteer group immediately began working on cases, trying to help families find their kids.

Even in those raw early days, Wilma stayed focused. In a 1986 annual report, she noted that she’d only worked part time during Child Find Manitoba’s first months because she was "dealing with a crisis in my own life."

Hearing about that, Myrna Driedger shakes her head. "How she did all of that, with the pain she must have been carrying," Driedger says. "The conviction that we have to try to prevent this from happening to other children."

<p>Myrna Driedger looks at drawings made by children for Missing Children’s Day, which she saved from her time as the first CEO of Child Find Manitoba.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Myrna Driedger looks at drawings made by children for Missing Children’s Day, which she saved from her time as the first CEO of Child Find Manitoba.

Today, Driedger is the MLA for Charleswood and legislature Speaker. But for 12 years beginning in the late 1980s, she was at the heart of Child Find, first as a volunteer while working as a nurse and then as its first full-time executive director.

By then, Wilma Derksen had stepped back from the organization, but her role in its birth was not forgotten.

"My heroes are the parents of missing kids, who can get up every day after their child goes missing and still move forward," Driedger says. "The Cliff and Wilma Derksens who can carry on every day after that."

In those days, Child Find was a much smaller operation. For years, Driedger rolled up her sleeves to do a little bit of everything, even designing the handprint logo that blossomed on posters and sweatshirts across Manitoba.

She recruited other nurses to work as case workers and carry Child Find pagers. She expanded the program to fingerprint children, setting up shopping mall kiosks to educate parents; there, she quickly became aware of Child Find’s early obstacles.

"People would make a wide berth around us, because nobody wanted to even think that could happen to a child," she recalls. "That took years. It’s still something that parents find difficult: how do you tell your child about some of the things you have to talk about? Child Find gave them the tools to talk about it."

That discomfort affected the organization’s early fundraising, too, she believed. At the time, she says, Manitoba had the highest per capita runaway rate in Canada; Child Find knew that sexual abuse drove many kids to flee.

Talking about that openly wasn’t easy. It made people uncomfortable. But Driedger knew it had to be done.

"There were a lot of kids in pain," she says. "We started looking more into the issues of kids running away, and what do we need to address that... but nobody wanted to have their company’s name associated with that."

Just building the social capacity to face difficult facts about children and abuse; that is part of Candace’s legacy, too. So is this: early in Driedger’s tenure, she set about building a closer relationship with police in Manitoba.

There were many benefits. Child Find could teach police how to work with families of missing kids. Driedger recalls how in the early 1990s, some officers still paused on reports of children missing less than 24 hours.

Meanwhile, by acting as a liaison between families and police, by taking on the community work that investigators couldn’t do, Child Find could ease the strain on both sides, and spread information more widely.

"It’s more than very helpful," says Lou Spado, a retired Winnipeg police inspector who served on Child Find’s board in the mid-1990s. "Working hand in hand... they did a lot of things with co-ordinating information.

"It was just a spirit of co-operation," he adds. "There was nothing secret about anything the police were doing with regards to missing persons. It was just the good relationship that developed, and I believe it carried on."

It has carried on. Next week, the centre will host its 17th annual conference at the Fort Garry Hotel, drawing law enforcement from across North America to study issues around child sexual exploitation, abuse and abduction.

"We are years ahead now," McDonald says. "On training and understanding on the issue of abducted and murdered children, police have come a long way in their knowledge. We can’t compare how important that is."

"My heroes are the parents of missing kids, who can get up every day after their child goes missing and still move forward. The Cliff and Wilma Derksens who can carry on every day after that." – Myrna Driedger

 

• • • 

Not all of Candace’s legacy played out in public. For years, Wilma Derksen has carried out much of her work in more private spaces: facilitating support groups, speaking on panels, meeting with police and government officials.

She also brought that message, one of healing and forgiveness, into Stony Mountain Institution.

It was called the Paying Forward Project. It began with a simple sharing circle; every two weeks, a group of inmates and crime victims would meet, just to talk. Under Wilma’s guidance, participants began to open up.

They’d share memories of their childhood years. They’d muse about how they were like or unlike their parents. They’d talk about what they wanted their obituaries to say. As co-facilitator Graham Reddoch watched, he saw change.

"It was really something to see," Reddoch says. "I think it achieved the purpose of humanizing people. We were able to move beyond labels, for victims and offenders, and see the impact of our actions on each other."

The inmates were so moved that they decided to start a jewelry-making business. It was something they could do in their cells. Proceeds from sales of the earrings and necklaces they crafted went to charities that honoured victims.

It was a quiet effort, carefully avoiding most media attention. When the program ended in 2013, a casualty of Stephen Harper’s federal government funding cuts, few people in Manitoba had heard of it. Still, it made human connections.

That’s Wilma’s gift, Reddoch says: to be able to open conversations in non-polarizing ways.

"It’s been her focus on that F-word: forgiveness," he says, and he sees how that spread through the province. "I think it’s had an impact on Manitobans in terms of building a level of compassion and understanding."

So the legacy of Candace Derksen becomes one of bridges. Between families and the public, between offenders and victims, between victims and the justice system they must engage. These are the things Candace changed.

And through Child Find, which rebranded as the Canadian Centre for Child Protection in 2006, she changed people’s lives, too; today, Driedger recalls it as some of the most fulfilling work of her life. She keeps the colourful drawings children made for a Child Find campaign.

If it wasn’t for Child Find, would Driedger have gone into politics? She thinks about that for a moment.

"You know what? I don’t think so," she says. "(Sexual abuse) was an underlying thing that took me into politics. I said, if there’s anything I could take on at a different level, that would be one I would try very hard to deal with."

Today, at the Centre for Child Protection, there are reminders of Candace everywhere. To mark its 30th anniversary in 2015, the centre added a plaque in her memory on the wall. "Never forgotten," it reads.

In McDonald’s office, there’s a photo of her and Wilma from that unveiling. In the same frame, there is a copy of Candace’s school photo, the one that still runs in newspapers across Canada. All three of them are smiling.

The search for Candace Derksen broke a city’s heart — but among the pieces, people found hope.

"What you see here is that feeling that everybody wanted to do something," McDonald says. "So the genesis of the organization, that we don’t lose sight of, is about people caring about other people’s children."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

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