Changing lives with words – the 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient
Margot Van Sluytman, AU’s 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient, turned her tragedy and gift of writing into meaningful teaching tools that help others heal
Margot Van Sluytman has followed an unconventional, convoluted, and at times controversial route to her master’s degree. “I wrote to save my life, and hopefully the lives of others” says Margot, founder of The Sawbonna Project for Living Justice.
“I’ve been reading and writing since I was very little,” Margot says, noting that growing up in Guyana in the 1960’s without a television meant time was filled with literature instead. As the second oldest of four children, “We had books and books; they were expensive, but Mom and Dad still got them for us.”
At age eight, Margot moved with her family to Canada and settled in Scarborough, Ontario in hopes of building a new life in a new country. Once in Canada, Margot’s mother ran a day home and Margot’s father, Theodore Van Sluytman became a successful salesman at the Hudson’s Bay Company.
But everything changed on Easter Monday, 1978.
Theodore, on his day off, went to work to prepare the store for an upcoming Bay Day sale. Tragically, he was caught in the middle of an armed robbery by three men, and was shot and killed as he tried to thwart the robbery.
Margot, then 16, says she and her family were never the same.
Three months later, Margot moved away from home to live in The Beach in Toronto, and told the principal of her school, Sister Lucille Corrigan, that she was leaving school to work full-time. In an act of grace, Sister Corrigan found a bursary to pay Margot’s tuition, enabling the struggling teen to complete high school.
Having an innate ability with words, Margot initially chose the University of Toronto to major in English and minor in philosophy. Her expectations of university were much different than its reality, so she changed her path and completed Toronto’s Centennial College Book Editing and Design program, earning her a diploma and a foundation to teach writing as a healing tool.
Thirteen years later she went on to complete her bachelor’s degree in philosophy via University of Waterloo distance education.
In 2001, Margot moved to Venezuela with her two daughters to teach English. Upon their return to Canada two years later, she taught continuing education courses but found she was frustrated by a gap in programming. “So, I created courses around writing as healing and started to teach them,” she says. “I also wrote and published a few poetry books, discovered The National Association for Poetry Therapy, and then published poetry through my own small publishing house, Palabras Press (meaning “words” in Spanish).”
In 2007, the Association presented Margot with an award for her impactful courses and book, Dance with Your Healing: Tears Let Me Begin to Speak. The award made Margot’s work more well-known, leading to a Mrs. Flett sending Palabras Press a donation. “Flett, Flett, Flett,” Margot repeated, until it clicked: the donation came from the wife of her father’s killer, Glen Flett. Margot wanted to meet the man who killed her father and ask: “Do you know what you did?” and “Why did you do that?”
Correspondence began with the Flett’s and it was in one of Glen’s emails to Margot that he signed off with the word “Sawbonna,” a Zulu greeting meaning “I see you” and acknowledging our shared humanity.
“I’m not on a journey of forgiveness, I understand the concept, but it is ‘Sawbonna’ that I value above everything. People use the word ‘forgiveness’ because they understand it and don’t know Sawbonna yet, but they will; that’s my mission in life.”
Education opens doors
Sawbonna has become extremely important to Margot. “It encapsulates possibility, complexity, confusion, everything, with the view that we are in relationship no matter what,” she says. “It’s how we negotiate our shared humanity.”
Margot attributes her success, and even completion of her Athabasca University Master of Arts – Interdisciplinary Studies, to thesis supervisors Dale Dewhurst and Carolyn Redl.
“[Margot] has a unique and passionate ability to open doors and to find venues to present her vision,” Dale wrote in an email. “Since the completion of her master’s degree, she has met with federal cabinet ministers, provincial premiers, heads of prisons and correctional systems, international dignitaries, justice reformers, and renowned authors; and, she has given numerous international presentations.”
“My Athabasca master’s degree has opened many doors for me,” Margot says. “It made me an academic, yet still a poet, plus I have time with people who can make changes in restorative justice and in justice policy not just in Canada, but around the world.”