Photo by Katalin Karolyi
When Margot Van Sluytman was 8-years-old her parents moved from Guyana to Canada in order to bring up their three children in a safer environment. In March 1978, when she was 16, Margot’s father was murdered during an armed robbery at the Hudson Bay store where he worked. Many years later Margot embarked on a path of reconciliation with her father’s killer. Today she is a poet, publisher and founder of the Sawbonna Project, a justice organisation that encourages respect, responsibility, and relationship within the crucible of our shared-humanity.
The last time I saw my Dad on this earth he was laying in his casket. I kissed him on his forehead and said, ‘Dad, I promise that your life will not be for nothing.’ At the time I didn’t know what that meant.
My mother, my brother and my sisters were very close and the murder of my Dad shattered us as a family. Within three months of his death, at the age of 16, I had moved out of home. I felt suffocated. There was no context. No center. I needed to be alone to think, to feel, to grieve.
Three days after my Dad was shot, a journalist came to the door to talk to my mother. ‘Do you ever think you’ll be able to forgive the man, Glen Flett, who killed your husband?’ she asked, and without hesitating my Mum said, ‘Yes, I forgive him so that I can live.’ She knew that if she thought differently she wouldn’t survive. And she almost didn’t as one year later she spent 12 months in hospital.
When I was 18 I tried to kill myself with a bottle of pills. My mother came to see me and said, ‘I have lost Daddy, I can’t lose you too.’ After that I never tried to take my own life again but instead for six years I became bulimic.
I had this feeling that half of me was black; I would walk around feeling like half a person, completely lost. Somehow I managed to do an Honours in English and Philosophy and although I didn’t believe in much I did believe in love and when I fell in love we got married and started a family. The marriage didn’t last but my two daughters gave me a reason to stay alive. And yet still my life felt full of existential angst. An author I knew said to me once, ‘You’re not the only one who feels pain, Margot.’ But I was trapped in my hurt, and any injustice filled me with vitriol.
It was poetry that saved me. I’ve always loved language and I created an ideal job for myself using poetry as a form of healing to help people with their grief. I ran courses and published several books. I received an award from the National Association of Poetry Therapy in America for my book, Dance With Your Healing: Tears Let Me Begin to Speak. I’d felt like a loser all my life and this accolade made me feel worth something again.
Just after collecting the award, I received a donation to my publishing press, Palabras, from a woman I didn’t know. I sat there staring at the name and then turned to my daughter and said, ‘You won’t believe this but I’ve just received a donation from the wife of Grandpa’s killer.’
It turned out that Glen Flett (who had transformed his life in prison and been released after 14 years of incarceration) had attended an event aiming to bring victims and perpetrators together, where a woman had asked if he ever thought about contacting the family of his victim. When he replied ‘yes’, she went away to research what I was doing and then showed him my publishing press work.
So I replied to Glen’s wife to thank her for the donation and ask if her husband would consider giving me an apology. She emailed straight back saying, ‘he has been waiting a long time to do this.’
From then on Glen and I started to exchange emails. They were emails filled with humanity. His words helped to heal me, but after a while the words weren’t enough and I knew I needed to look into his eyes. So three months later I met the man who killed my father.
After introducing myself, we both started to sob and just hugged each other. It was extremely powerful. We did lots of talking and lots of crying – it was as if we knew each other. All I can say is that from that moment on the black part of me started to get coloured in.
This was the first of several meetings, all of which have informed my work on restorative justice which I now refer to as Sawbonna. It’s a word I learnt from Glen when he used it to sign off an email. He told me it was a Zulu word meaning “I see you” – our shared-humanity.
At first I hated the very notion of forgiveness. To tell someone who is in pain to forgive is brutal. Forgiveness can’t be prescriptive. But at a talk one day an audience member told me she had chosen to forgive the perpetrator of a heinous crime and this made me wonder if perhaps I was being too narrow minded. The moment I began to consider forgiveness, my whole body started to feel different, more complete and more at peace.
For me forgiveness is a fluid process which means healing. Before I embarked on this path half of me was a void and full of nothingness, whereas now I have a friendship with the man who killed my father and that has helped put meaning back into my life.