This story continues some graphic and/or explicit content. Reader discretion is advised. Sarah Salter Kelly and Marilyn Brighteyes are two people that might have never met, growing up in very different homes and backgrounds in Edmonton.
This story continues some graphic and/or explicit content. Reader discretion is advised.
Sarah Salter Kelly and Marilyn Brighteyes are two people that might have never met, growing up in very different homes and backgrounds in Edmonton. But last May, they shared a story in a powerful and moving healing circle that touched on the person that brought them together - Peter Brighteyes, Marilyn's brother and the man that killed Sarah's mother.
“I think for many of us, we've been through life-altering situations where the world as we know it changes,&” said Sarah, as she began talking to those gathered at a healing circle on May 26 at Blue Quills First Nations College, held during the college's annual cultural camp.
Sarah grew up in Edmonton, daughter to a woman who was a life-skills coach. Discussions around the kitchen table growing up were often filled with life lessons.
“I was taught from a young age that everything happens for a reason, there are no accidents,&” she said.
However, the events of 1995 would shake her foundations and make her question that belief.
On a frigid winter's day in December of that year, her mother, Sheila Salter, was entering a parkade in her office building in Edmonton, when she was attacked in the darkened space.
“There was a violent struggle, her throat was slit, she was sexually assaulted and her body was thrown into the back of a Chevy Blazer,&” said Sarah.
A copious amount of blood was found later at the scene, but there was no trace of her mother.
“We didn't know what had happened to her or where she was for 10 days,&” recalled Sarah, remembering the agony of clinging to the hope, the belief that her mother was OK, while all around them, the world rushed on with the crush of Christmas activities and shopping.
The family held a news conference, wanting to keep Sheila's face in the media, rather than let her become a faceless statistic. At the time, the family also publicized the fact that Sheila had been wearing a one-of-a-kind gold ring, and asked the public to keep an eye out for this unique ring.
It was the request that would turn up a lead in the killing, as the owner of an international hotel recognized the ring as one that had been sold to him by Peter Brighteyes.
Police issued a Canada-wide arrest warrant for Peter, who turned himself in a couple of days later, pleading not guilty to the charges of first degree murder.
A farmer also came forward, having found Sheila's body, frozen and abandoned in a farmhouse on Dec. 18, 1995.
“There's relief on one hand, just knowing,&” Sarah recalled, noting she'd had a bundle of anxious energy knotting up her stomach over the course of the 10 days. But the grief stayed with her, as she recalled walking in Edmonton's ravines, and through the river, her boots filling with water as she spoke to her mother and cried.
Peter's case went to trial in 1997, a three-week long affair. The trial was the first time Sarah had seen him in person, and she described looking at him and feeling as if he was not in his own body. In that moment, she saw he too had a story that had brought him to that place.
Marilyn Brighteyes knew the circumstances that might have made Peter the man he was, a man who took hostage a prison guard and tortured him, the man who killed Sheila Salter, the same man who would end up taking his own life in prison after being found guilty of murder. She grew up with some of those same circumstances.
She said people never want to believe that a member of their family could hurt or kill someone else. But the world that she and Peter lived in was one where violence, sexual abuse, addiction and trauma was the norm.
“When I first moved here, I was taken to go shake hands with my brother, who'd molested me when I was nine years old,&” she said, recalling her return to her mother's home of Saddle Lake after growing up in Edmonton. Peter too had raped her when she was a young teen. “You grow up with that, it's normalized.&”
For Marilyn, her story began with her mother, who attended residential school at what would later become Blue Quills First Nations College. In a quiet but matter-of-fact way, she described her mother as a negative, angry person, with less than a Grade 6 education, an alcoholic, a woman who loved her children but who was unable to show it.
Many of the women in her family fell into drinking and dealing drugs, and prostituting themselves, and by the time she was 13, Marilyn too was working the streets.
“Out of six of us, two have passed away, one went to jail, one committed suicide,&” she says, adding her mother died at 64, having lived a rough life.
For many of her family, they were committing “another kind of suicide&”, one where they lived a lifestyle they knew would kill them, but kept on the same path anyway, she said.
“During my healing process, I had to walk away from my family,&” she said, noting they were on a destructive path. She had hid her alcoholism so well from the world, but at the age of 33, she could see how her desire to escape into drugs and alcohol was hurting her own family, her children.
“I got so sick and tired of waking up with that guilt and pain . . . of letting my kids see the ugly side of me,&” Marilyn said, noting she felt like she was letting herself down.
The change happened when she started attending a program offered through the Mannawanis Native Friendship Centre that showed her life could be better by facing her demons rather than running from them.
“I was shown a different way . . . I was so grateful,&” she said, finding in the program the hope to give her children a better life.
Every day, five days a week, she would hitchhike from Saddle Lake to St. Paul to attend the program, sometimes with her kids, sometimes without them.
“Through my healing journey, I was able to meet with Sarah and my dad,&” she said, recalling how her mother showed her in a series of dreams a “green place&” full of love and joy, with a train that flew into the sky, and where a man who looked like her eldest son lived. When she finally found her father in Vancouver, the dream made sense.
Meeting each other for the first time was another step in both Sarah and Marilyn's journey.
For a long time, Sarah had buried her anger and tried to force Peter away from her, even though his face would come to her in intimate moments, like when she was nursing her children.
Over time, she realized force would not work - she needed to accept and express her anger, and to bring Peter closer to her instead of pushing him away.
She had first heard of Marilyn through a documentary done about life in the inner city, called Beating the Streets. Marilyn was one of the teenagers featured, and it was mentioned that she was the sister of Peter, whose murder of Sheila Salter was heavily publicized at the time of filming.
In 2010, Sarah reached out to Marilyn via social media, and the two began conversing. Sarah felt it was important for her to come to Saddle Lake to meet Marilyn, and also to visit the place where Peter had come from.
She was a little nervous about meeting Marilyn, but when she saw her the first time, it was excitement she felt. They spent time together at the cultural camp going on at the time, making rattles, walking and talking, and Marilyn “courageously sharing&” her past, said Sarah.
“I felt really blessed this person was so willing to help me understand (what brought her brother) to murder,&” said Sarah, adding that through those conversations and through her own journey to accept the anger and pain, she was able to move forward. “It's been years since I've been in that place of blame.&”
For Marilyn, she had lived with guilt over her brother's actions, the pain of knowing someone related to her took away another's life.
“I'm sorry he hurt you and your family. I know what he was capable of,&” she told Sarah.
However, she added, she also knew her brother was a living being, and that like all people, he was born perfect and complete, that it was his past that made him what he became.
Many of her family are also high-risk offenders, who come from a place of hate and pain, she said, adding, “You go, you bury a body, you cry, you go on. You don't really deal with it.&”
Aboriginal women go missing or are murdered frequently and no one speaks about it, and Marilyn said people needed to work together to change that.
“And the way we change it is by finding our voice and using it . . . to speak the truth.&”
Sarah agreed, saying, “Our healing needs to happen together. And I feel that my mom being murdered by Peter has shown that - we're not separate from each other. If we don't come from that place of ‘we', we're going to be stuck in that.'
The people that were part of the circle shared how much Sarah and Marilyn's story had touched them, calling it a powerful message that more people needed to hear. To honour the forgiveness and love shown on both sides, a song was performed, the two women clasping hands in the middle of the circle as a plaintive cry and drumbeats filled the air. Afterwards, they hugged for a long time, a wordless moment filled with emotion.
As the circle unfolded, Marilyn looked at Sarah and said with plain honesty, the way she shares her sorrow and makes amends for the past is by teaching her children something better.
“I learned that it starts here,&” she said, touching her chest.