A Life's Story

July 02, 2022

The Art of forgiveness

Faith, family lifted Cliff Derksen, 76, through ‘very deepest valleys’

By: Janine LeGal

Known for his service to community, his impact through art, his strength and ability to forgive, Cliff Derksen wanted to make the world a better place.

Appreciated by friends, colleagues and even strangers for exemplifying his faith and showing his capacity to love, Derksen walked the talk, transforming the trauma from his own experience — the slaying of daughter Candace — and creating a life that inspired many along the way.

Derksen died May 22, at age 76.

Born in Saskatoon, he grew up on a farm north of Borden, Sask., and moved to Winnipeg in 1980.

His wife Wilma remembers meeting him in Bible school: he was student president, she was president of the yearbook committee.

He got her number soon after they met. She recalls their first kiss, and when he first told her he loved her. That bond would grow and hold them together through the best and worst of times.

“We really loved being together,” Wilma says. “It was a huge adventure as we tried to find our dream. We were two artists — a writer and an artist; all we wanted was to create.”

The couple had a son and two daughters and were together for more than five decades.

Derksen was a man of many talents. He worked as a lifeguard, porter, bus boy, milkman, construction worker, DJ and photographer. Valedictorian of his graduating class, he could act, ski, swim, play guitar and sing tenor.

He was a magician who loved to entertain. He was a businessman and pastor, ultimately fulfilling his lifelong dream of being an artist with an art studio and teaching art.

“He could do anything. He was great at everything he did,” says Wilma, adding Derksen once even finished sewing a dress for her when she’d struggled to do it herself.

Though family and art were always priorities, it was faith that mattered most.

“He would choose his God over me,” says Wilma. “Thankfully, he didn’t have a narrow definition of God.

“He believed in me. He was truthful, loyal, and he really loved me. What I loved most about him was his art. I was so mesmerized. He could replicate anything he saw. I could never get over how he could paint a picture of a flower or anything in his mind.”

That art would serve Derksen well in his healing.

When the couple’s 13-year-old daughter Candace disappeared on her way home from school in November 1984, their lives would never be the same. Her body was found in an industrial area shed in January 1985.

The Derksens made the decision to fight through the trauma and grief by choosing the path of forgiveness.

Over time, and with unbridled honesty, Derksen documented his thoughts and shared stories online — on everything from the creative process, to the slaying of his daughter, to his relationship with God and with his family.

Even in the darkest moments he always included a joke: a reminder to enjoy life, to have fun. That openness and vulnerability in living life so publicly inspired a community that grieved alongside his family.

In 2010, Derksen began renting studio space, and it was there he expressed the myriad of painful and difficult emotions through his ceramic sculptures. In 2018, the Derksens opened Candace House, a non-profit Winnipeg charity providing a safe and comforting refuge for those impacted by serious crime while in the court process.

“We had the same goal,” says Wilma. “We try to be missionaries; we try to make a difference. We wanted to make the world a better place. Our goal was ‘let’s make the evil into good.’ He would have his way of doing it; I would have my way of doing it.”

Earlier this year, Derksen’s world would change again when he received an unexpected diagnosis.

“When he found out he had cancer, we kind of tunnelled; we didn’t see anybody for about a month,” says Wilma. “We watched crazy movies together, (Winnipeg) Jets games. He really wanted to finish his autobiography; it was so intense. Discussions were amazing. We saw the beauty as he was dying, in some ways.

“I think his legacy means supporting what he loved and telling his story. You can move through real darkness. He moved through the worst: he had parental abuse, poverty, yet he survived each one by using all the negative in life to make himself a better person.”

Longtime family friend Dave Loewen worked with Derksen at Christian summer Camp Arnes for many years. Loewen says what made him a well-liked and unusual person was his warm, friendly, cheerful disposition and his ability and practice of forgiving unconditionally.

“Few people go through the very deepest valleys that Cliff encountered in his lifetime,” Loewen said.

“When his eldest daughter Candace was abducted and left to freeze to death, Cliff was the primary suspect for many years. The tests and interrogations he had to go through were many. Humanly speaking, Cliff had every right to become an embittered person.

“But he knew Jesus, the author of forgiveness. He accepted Jesus’s promise that His grace was sufficient for him to also forgive. For me, the legacy that Cliff leaves is this: an intentional and unconditional forgiveness is the foundation for a happy, fruitful life.”

Derksen’s daughter Odia shared her feelings about her father in the eulogy she wrote.

“He was kind, gentle and always smiling and happy. I loved his chuckle. My dad was a good father. He could make every person feel like they were the most important person in the world. Growing up, I knew that I could always ask Dad for help — and he would be willing to drop anything to lend a hand. He was a rock of stability in my childhood and a source of strength for our whole family.”

fpcity@freepress.mb.ca

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