If Justice Isn’t the Key to Healing, Then What Is?


In November of 1984, I was eight years old. I remember walking home from school, with the crunch of snow beneath my feet and the sun sinking quickly in the early winter sky. Making the way home seemed ominous and full of danger. It wasn’t just the darkening woods or the long stretch of busy highway I had to walk that made me look over my shoulder repeatedly. It was the missing girl. It was knowing that Candace Derksen, a 13-year-old girl from my city, never made it home from school. When she went missing, I wondered every day until well into my teens, if there would ever be a day when I would not make it home.

Six weeks after Candace Dersken went missing, her body was found. She had been bound and abandoned in a shed, not far from her home. She froze to death. Forever 13. And no one was held responsible. Not for 26 years. In the end, the man accused of murdering Candace was tried and convicted. He appealed the conviction and was acquitted of the murder.

And that’s where we are.

In the years since Candace’s death, her parents, Cliff and Wilma, have given interviews and written books. There is an underlying theme to their unfolding story that you might not expect. Their story has become a story of forgiveness. Wilma and Cliff are very open about their struggles with fear and rage over the years. Choosing the path of forgiveness has never been easy, but it has always been necessary.

In the days after Candace’s body was found, the father of a murder victim visited the Derksens. He laid out the truth about how his life had been dismantled by the hurt and anger that filled him following the death of his child. Sitting with that grieving father compelled Cliff and Wilma to confront their own truth. Did they succumb to the grief and pain and anger that pushed at the edges of their hearts or did they choose the difficult path of forgiveness? And if they chose forgiveness once, could they continue to choose forgiveness, no matter where this journey took them?

They chose the way of forgiveness, but there were years when forgiveness was a more difficult choice than others. Particularly when, 26 years after Candace’s murder, a suspect was named. It was the shift from forgiving the act of harm committed against their family to forgiving the individual who stole their daughter from them. That, as it turns out, was a completely different level of forgiveness.

I’ve had the chance to get to know Wilma a bit over the last year. I’ve sat with her to talk about her life, her passions, her writing and her revelation of justice. The first time I met her I was in awe of how she radiated fun and laughed so readily, so easily and yet … and yet, Candace.

One of the most profound things Wilma has said to me is that justice rarely looks like you think it will look and it never does what you think it will do. These words were etched on my heart the moment they came from her lips.

The more I wade into conversations about truth and reconciliation in Canada, the more I realize that there is a vagueness to our expectations in this context. We know we need to recognize truth. We need to tell our stories and sit in the truth of what we have experienced. There is also a deep desire to move forward in a good way. For me, as an indigenous person, it is the hope for my children’s futures that motivates me on this painful path.

The pain of excavating our truth is worth the pain if it means our children will have the opportunity to flourish. But to what end? What is reconciliation? What is justice? How are we measuring progress on this path? If justice isn’t the key to healing, then what is?

Perhaps it’s forgiveness. And its fruit, Peace.

After 33 years of practicing forgiveness, Wilma and Cliff Derksen have found perfected peace. They’ve tracked it and made it their own. They’ve fought the good fight and they are holding their prize. Peace is theirs and it has become their vantage point in a way that Justice could never have been. It is peace, not justice, that has brought healing to their hearts.

That first night I met Wilma, there was a group of us out for dinner and someone mentioned the song It is Well with My Soul.  Wilma exclaimed with a giggle, “I can’t stand that song! I mean, really, when are any of us not teetering on the edge of the abyss!” The whole table fell silent for a beat; then we all burst out laughing, Wilma the loudest of us all. She spoke truth in a way no one else could. And still, she laughed.

That is the unexpected gift in all of this. An understanding that joy is the by-product of a life lived in the deliberate pursuit of forgiveness. Peace and joy and love radiate from the Derksens. This is the legacy of their daughter, I think.

May this be the legacy of all of our sons and daughters. May it be their legacy and their future.