Learning to forgive
How one woman became friends with the man who murdered her father after a decades-long journey of recovery and acceptance
On a sunny afternoon in a Toronto suburb in March, 1978, Theodore Van Sluytman gave his 16-year-old daughter Margot a kiss on the cheek and told her he'd be back within a couple of hours.
It was Easter Monday and the Van Sluytman household was buzzing with activity. Margot's two younger siblings were playing somewhere in the only home her parents had owned since moving to Scarborough from Guyana nine years earlier. Her mother was in the downstairs playroom, tending to the handful of rambunctious children in her daycare.
Ted hadn't been scheduled to go into work at the Hudson's Bay store in the Eglinton Square shopping centre that day, but there was a big sale on Tuesday and the dedicated head salesman wanted to make sure everything was ready.
Outside the department store, 27-year-old Glen Flett and his crew of crooks were also making sure they were ready. They had pulled off a string of armed robberies in the past at hotels, restaurants and theatres, but decided it was time to step it up a notch and rob a Brink's armoured truck.
Knowing the layout of the store, it seemed like an easy hit. One man waited outside in a stolen car while Mr. Flett and his partner, armed with a hammer and a pair of guns, went in, following the guard until he retrieved $46,000 in cash from the main office upstairs.
The unsuspecting guard was knocked unconscious. Mr. Flett grabbed the money and bolted up an escalator, making his way into the men's clothing section. That's when a man suddenly appeared around a corner, grabbed him by the collar and said, "Give it up, son."
The pair struggled, triggering Mr. Flett's partner to fire a shot that struck the man in the back. Mr. Flett also fired, the bullet plunging into the man's left front shoulder. The criminals then fled, not knowing or caring whether the injured man left lying on the floor was dead or alive.
"I was just thinking about getting away," Mr. Flett said in a recent interview. "We don't try to shoot people during an armed robbery, but sometimes it happens."
Instead of Ted Van Sluytman coming home in a few hours, two tall police officers showed up at the Van Sluytmans' door, delivering the grim news that he had been killed in a robbery at work. The news was crippling for the family and plunged young Margot into the clutches of unbearable grief.
"I just remember looking over and seeing my dad's white clothes hanging on the line outside to dry. My mom was sitting on part of the steps and my brother and little sister were hugging her and trying to console her. She was sobbing," Ms. Van Sluytman said. "She just looked at me and said, 'Margot, Daddy dead.' After that I don't remember anything except there were knocks on the door, people were there, it became a very busy house."
A few hours after the robbery, Mr. Flett learned the 40-year-old man he'd shot had died, but he felt no remorse. Instead he was frustrated that the robbery hadn't gone as planned. He continued with his criminal lifestyle.
Public outrage about the senseless murder followed, along with a reward for the culprits, prompting Mr. Flett to move to Montreal for a while, living day by day, knowing he could be caught at any time. Eventually he returned to Toronto, where he was arrested about four months after the shooting and charged with second-degree murder.
He pleaded not guilty, but in 1980 was convicted and sentenced to 21 years to life, later reduced by the Ontario Court of Appeal to 14 years. A troublemaker since the age of 11 in his home city of Victoria, it wasn't the first time Mr. Flett would spend time behind bars, but it would certainly be the lengthiest.
While Mr. Flett was adjusting to his life in prison, Ms. Van Sluytman struggled to pick up the pieces of her shattered existence.
Following an argument with her mother, she left home three months after the murder and rented a room in a house in Toronto's Beaches neighbourhood. Once in a while, she'd return home, only to feel suffocated and leave again. Staying away was how she dealt with the pain that eventually led to an attempted suicide with a bottle of pills at 18.
Wading around in a fog, Ms. Van Sluytman still managed to complete an honours degree in English and philosophy, fell in love, got married, started a family, moved to Calgary and later divorced. No matter how many books she read or poems she wrote, she was still trapped in her grief, always carrying the pain of losing her loving father.
Behind bars, Mr. Flett was also struggling. He was involved in a prison murder, the prison drug trade and spent many months in segregation during his time at Kent Institution in British Columbia's upper Fraser Valley. One day he received an unexpected visit from his twin nine-year-old boys, whom he hadn't seen in 4 1/2 years. A day after the visit, a guard called him out of his cell and asked, "What are you doing here?"
The question pushed Mr. Flett to think seriously about his life, his children and what he had done to the Van Sluytman family.
"It all started with that one guard looking me in the eye and challenging me. I had come to hate myself. I didn't care if I lived or died. I had been living a creepy, bastard life for my whole life just about … taking advantage of other people, hurting them and doing all kinds of terrible things that I always had a huge amount of shame and guilt about," Mr. Flett said.
He started going to church and became a Christian.
"That's when things changed drastically. I just kept thinking I had to be the best man I could be in memory of Mr. Van Sluytman. That's what I decided to dedicate the rest of my life for. I found something in jail that I never had before. I had a real purpose and meaning and I was helping people instead of being self-centred and all caught up about me. I had never been alive like that, ever."
A mentor to Mr. Flett who was a volunteer for Bible studies at the prison told him about a program where victims and offenders were reconciled. That got him thinking about one day saying sorry to the family for taking Ted's life. He'd talked to police and his lawyer about contacting the Van Sluytmans in the past, only to be advised that it wasn't a good idea. So he accepted their silence as part of his life sentence.
In May, 2007, Margot Van Sluytman was living in Calgary, running courses on therapeutic writing and publishing books with her little press, Palabras. She had just returned from Portland, Ore., where she received an award from the National Association for Poetry Therapy, when she noticed a donation to her press from one Sherry Edmunds-Flett.
Recognizing the last name, Ms. Van Sluytman e-mailed the woman, asking if she was the wife of John Glendon Flett, the man who murdered her father. Through the media, she knew that Mr. Flett had been paroled for the crime in 1992, had turned his life around and married Sherry, a volunteer he'd met while in prison.
Mr. Flett at first panicked when he saw the e-mail, thinking his wife, who had learned from a friend about Margot's work in therapeutic writing, had done more damage than good by sending a donation she thought would be anonymous. He told her to write back and apologize. But Ms. Van Sluytman soon responded by e-mail, asking whether Mr. Flett could say sorry for what he did.
Through his wife, Glen Flett wrote back to her the next morning, sparking the start of a lengthy e-mail exchange that eventually transformed into direct e-mails about three times a day.
The e-mails were heavy at times, Mr. Flett recalls with tears in his eyes. Ms. Van Sluytman talked openly in them about the immense pain and suffering he had caused her family.
Eventually Ms. Van Sluytman decided it was time to look into his eyes.
"We shared really wonderful e-mails. His words helped to heal me, but I finally said, 'I have to meet you, I need to see your eyes,'" she recounted. "It just seemed normal to want to find out who he was, why they did that robbery. I had a million questions. I wanted to know my father's last words, how he felt, how his family felt, and share what it was like for me."
On a hot summer day in July 2007, they met, something she'd wanted to do since the shooting but had always feared her family would disown her if she did. She also wanted to meet Mr. Flett's two accomplices in the crime, but the opportunity has never been available.
Stepping onto the plane in Calgary that day, Ms. Van Sluytman realized she was an emotional and nervous wreck. She didn't tell her mother what she was doing, but she figured it out and couldn't understand why.
Outside Westminster Abbey, a Benedictine monastery on the outskirts of Mission, B.C., stood a nervous Mr. Flett, anxiously waiting for her arrival.
"It was really beautiful, deeply emotional. There was a sense of relief, like I was decompressing in a sense. After we hugged, we both cried," Ms. Van Sluytman said about the moment she saw her father's killer. "I just said to him, 'You must be John Glendon Flett. Well, I'm Margot Van Sluytman.' We hugged and sobbed and he said, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.'"
The pair walked and talked for many hours that day, but they never imagined it would spark the close friendship they've maintained now for almost 11 years. They've spoken together of their experience at prisons, universities and spiritual centres.
It's helped inform Ms. Van Sluytman's work in restorative justice and put meaning back into her life. Mr. Flett, now 67, runs Emma's Acres – a 3.2-hectare farm he founded with his wife near Mission that provides long-term and chronic offenders the opportunity to work with victims of crime. Ray King, whose son was murdered by serial killer Clifford Olson, is a regular on the farm.
Mr. Flett and Ms. Edmunds-Flett started LINC (Long-Term Inmates Now in the Community) in 1992 as a way of helping inmates re-enter society. About a dozen inmates come to Emma's Acres every week to tend to the vegetable gardens and develop farming skills while learning how to be part of the community again.
Mr. Flett says that Ted Van Sluytman is in his thoughts every day. Walking around the farm, he explains how a root cellar the society manages at a community garden in Mission has a plaque dedicated to Ted, then points in the direction of the abbey where he and Margot Van Sluytman first met. His face lights up whenever he talks about Ms. Van Sluytman and the messages they exchange on a regular basis. They know their story is unusual, but share the same view of offering hope to other people.
"I love Margot, I really do. I want her to let it go and don't let this hold her back so it's crippling her. That's the best thing – to see this person who was really in a shell because of what I did to her and now she's a rose that's just blooming," Mr. Flett said as he sat in a tiny shed on the farm, wearing a plaid shirt and brown overalls.
"She has a good reason to hate me and she doesn't and that really does inspire me to keep doing what I do. We've turned a tragedy into triumph. I can't tell you how moving that is to me. It's a gift."
Ms. Van Sluytman calls their unlikely friendship, and the forgiveness in her heart, a miracle.
"It feels normal. I have to step really far back to remember that it is kind of weird. The story that Glen and I share sounds like fiction. The only small thing is it's not. After Glen and I shared healing it was like my brain opened up again and I could study and win awards and get scholarships," said Ms. Van Sluytman.
One of her biggest dreams is for her mother to meet Glen Flett some day. But she knows that probably isn't going to happen.