CONNE RIVER, N.L.
Chantel John spent her first Christmas with her adoptive parents, Jennifer and Toby John, when she was nine. She came into the living room to see all the presents and was overwhelmed.
“She just stood up and looked at it and looked at me, and she didn’t know what to do, because the living room was completely full of Santa’s presents,” Jennifer said.
Still, out of all the toys and games, there was one gift she had asked for in particular.
“It was our first Christmas together as a family,” Toby added. "But there was only one toy that stood out the most, that she asked for — a remote-control truck.”
Chantel would be out in the yard, playing with the truck all day, he said. Jennifer noted that sometimes she would look down and see Toby playing with it too. Toby smiled.
“It was me and she who enjoyed it the most,” he said.
“But then when she moved back home with we, she really switched her life around. She called, wanted her father to come pick her up, and he went and picked her up. She moved home and she was really getting her life straightened out.”
Chantel was 28 when she was killed in Conne River Jan. 9. The Miawpukek community rallied around the family, as have communities across the province and the country. People have donned red in Chantel’s honour, hung red dresses along the road into the reserve and on their own porches, and gathered for a vigil Jan. 14 in her parents’ yard.
A week after that vigil, Chantel’s parents talked about how kind and caring their daughter was, and how deeply she was loved. Chantel came to live with the Johns when she was in Grade 3.
“They brought her to we one weekend for a respite. That was on a Friday, and she didn’t want to leave,” Jennifer said.
“She was very, very quiet. She and her father sat to the table, and she and her father drew and drew and drew pictures, for days.”
Chantel’s love of animals was apparent even then. She would draw dogs and horses, later going on to take up rescuing animals in the community. She was always out and about, to the point that sometimes her mother would have to call around to find her and ask her to come home to eat.
“She was always on the go. She was one of those kids that was always out somewhere,” Toby said.
“She was a real outgoing person. She loved adventures outdoors. We used to go camping a lot, and she loved going camping, because I always used to have my quad. She loved my quad – she almost wore it out.”
Chantel loved school, but didn’t have a particular subject she enjoyed. She always wanted to be a veterinarian, and after graduation she started school in St. John’s to become a veterinary technician. Jennifer said it didn’t work out, but both her parents were confident she would find her way.
Chantel had worked on the reserve, participating in a program that saw people employed to help elders with things like firewood, building a shed, or painting. Not only was she always game for a project, having completed many over the years with her father, she was keen to help people.
“She didn’t care who you were, or what you were, if you needed help, she’ll help you,” Jennifer said. “And that’s one thing we learned her; have respect and treat people the way you want to be treated.”
“I said, ‘You gotta remember, Mom and Dad always loves you. No matter where you’re to, or where you lives, our door is always open.’ And one good thing is, she knew that.”
Despite all her goodwill, Chantel had been struggling.
“But then when she moved back home with we, she really switched her life around," Jennifer. "She called, wanted her father to come pick her up, and he went and picked her up. She moved home and she was really getting her life straightened out.”
That was in early December. Chantel’s parents were pleased to have her back and happy to be able to support her while she was making changes in her life.
“That’s what we told her, ‘No matter where you go, we’re always going to be here for you,’” Toby said. “I said, ‘You gotta remember, Mom and Dad always loves you. No matter where you’re to, or where you lives, our door is always open.’ And one good thing is, she knew that.”
Since her death, Chantel’s parents have been amazed by the support they are getting from near and far. Across Newfoundland and Labrador, communities and Indigenous groups are holding vigils in her honour, and across the country, others mourning missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls are speaking Chantel’s name in remembrance.
“It’s overwhelming, the support we’ve got from not just our family and friends, but from the community itself,” Toby said. “And then to have other communities across Newfoundland reach out to us in such a pleasant way… sometimes words don’t even describe it. Honest to God, the things you hear and the things that people say, it’s just heartwarming.”
“I think she would have felt very special, and, no doubt about it, she was.”