On Wednesday, a knock on the door of a modest Abbotsford rental house lands like a firecracker. The landlord is outside and he has come with a question: How is the rent going to be paid?
It’s a question Nadine, 22, and Nina Saint-Ange, 21, and their three younger siblings — Chelsy, 17, Wade, 16, and Kelsy, 15 — have barely had a moment to consider since their father collapsed and died in their kitchen while getting ready to cook dinner on the night of May 8.
Their father’s heart attack at age 45 is the third in a series of tragedies that has left the five Saint-Ange siblings fighting to stay together.
Twenty-one-year-old Ryan Saint-Ange of Abbotsford, B.C., was murdered in 2012.
Five years ago, the eldest Saint-Ange child, Ryan, then 21, was brutally murdered by his former roommate. The strain of that loss, and the subsequent trial of the accused killer, threw the family into crisis and triggered an avalanche of sorrow. The whole family became what grief counsellors call the “hidden victims” of homicide, suffering trauma, grief, isolation and extreme stress.
“That was the beginning of the pain. It was devastating,” says Nina.
That night in 2012, when police knocked on their door and asked their mother to accompany them to the crime scene to identify the remains of her eldest son, and the devastating surreal morning, when the children learned their brother had been murdered, everything changed.
“Ryan was the glue that held the family together,” says Kelsy.
He was also so well-loved that the family had to rent an auditorium to accommodate all of his friends at the funeral. The walls of their house are covered with photos of the six children, Ryan always in the centre of the circle, beaming.
The children’s lives began to come apart, an almost textbook example of the emotional and physical impact that homicide has on a family. Their mother, Mary, a house cleaner, and their father, Wade, a long-haul trucker, had been lifelong sweethearts who met as children in the Seychelles. After immigrating to Montreal, they married as teens.
Ryan’s murder ruptured the family emotionally and the couple separated.
Although the murder wasn’t gang-related, the trial brought media attention that was difficult for the family to deal with. Nina says the experience left the family isolated, and she became reclusive.
Mary, who suffered from chronic severe asthma, was in and out of hospital and often unable to work. “Her body betrayed her,” says Nina.
The Saint-Ange family, from left: Nina, Chelsea, Wade, Kelsey and Nadine, who were orphaned when their father died of a heart attack on May 8, 2017, in Abbotsford, B.C.
The family struggled to stay afloat and bounced from one rental home to another. Mary tried her best to put her sorrow aside and keep their home, wherever they were, filled with music. After her husband left, she even learned to cook the Creole recipes that were his specialty. She told stories of her Seychelles childhood, of climbing trees and picking mangos, of giant tortoises that roamed her family’s garden, and she promised one day to take her children to the island where she had grown up.
When the family became homeless in the summer of 2016, Mary tried to turn it into an adventure. “We’ll just go camping,” she told the kids.
“My mom tried to make it fun. She said things are rough, but you don’t have to deal with it roughly,” says Chelsy. “She was the most positive thing in our life.”
Then, on Aug. 10, 2016, while the family was living in a campground, tragedy suddenly struck again: Mary died of an asthma attack. She was just 43. “We didn’t get to say goodbye to her,” says Nina.
Wade, whose long-haul trucking job had kept him at a distance, came back into the picture, found a house and got the kids set up. There wasn’t a lot of furniture, there were no extras, and their dad was on the road for weeks at a time, but there was music in the house again.
“He parented by phone when he wasn’t here,” says Nina with a shy smile. “He’d be telling me how to cook the rice, how to get my sister to clean up her room.”
Family friend Jen Macpherson, the mother of Nina’s best friend, Keira, says she got “one of those middle-of-the-night emergency phone calls” from her daughter on May 8, the night Wade Sr. died. “She was panicking, freaking out,” says MacPherson.
Her daughter had been over for dinner at the Saint-Ange home. Wade had just returned from a few weeks on the road, and had seasoned a chicken for dinner. Keira and Nina had headed out to the grocery store to pick up a few more things for dinner, leaving Wade in the kitchen happily singing along to some music.
Nina Saint-Ange walks past photos of her deceased parents and brother as she heads off to deal with the landlord in Abbotsford, B.C., on May 24, 2017.
When they got home, the girls found their father collapsed on the floor, in full cardiac arrest. As Nina and Keira frantically tried to resuscitate him, Chelsy called an ambulance. Hours later, in hospital, he was taken off life support and died.
Although Macpherson didn’t know the family, Keira begged her mother to come over. The kids needed help. When Macpherson went to the home, she discovered the five children had no family nearby and no idea of where to turn. “The kids were alone. Not a single other adult showed up. I don’t even have words to describe the shock. They had no help, they had no support.”
Macpherson reached out to Nina.
“She just melted into me,” recalls Macpherson, who works at Fraser House, a youth and family counselling centre in Mission. “She cried and cried and cried. I couldn’t just turn and walk away. I stayed with them the whole day, hugging them, loving them, encouraging them to eat something.”
Macpherson started making calls, to schools, to social services, to victim services. She helped the kids plan a funeral for their father, and accompanied the older girls to his workplace to empty out his truck. When she observed that Wade Jr. was upset about not having a suit to wear to his father’s memorial, she took his measurements and got him a blazer.
“They have nothing,” says Macpherson, who fights tears when she talks about the kids she describes as “precious, warm, resilient, determined.”
“Their father had left a significant amount of debt, there was no will and no plan for the children. Their extended family are all from Montreal, there is no one who can help. Their grandmother is on income assistance.”
Macpherson decided she had to help. “I just couldn’t turn away.”
Inside the house, two dragon lizards lounge in terrariums and the dogs, Peg and Ombre, are never far from the children’s sides. The walls are covered with family photos. It was their dad who photographed everyone, who was always behind the camera, delighting in his boisterous, rambling brood.
At the dining-room table, the grief is palpable. There are tears and long silences.
Family friend Jennifer McPherson strums a guitar with Wade Saint-Ange, in Abbotsford, B.C., on May 24, 2017.
Finally, it is 17-year-old Chelsy who finds her voice. “We want to stay together. We are family, and that is all we have left.”
Just how they are going to do that is the challenge ahead. Nadine, who works the graveyard shift turkey catching, and Nina, who works days in a skip-tracing agency, are setting aside personal goals to figure out how to take on the parenting roles in their family.
The older girls are applying for guardianship, but will have to show Family Services they can care for their younger siblings both emotionally and financially. They are determined to do just that.
Macpherson has helped to create a budget. Kelsy, Chelsy and Wade are back at school trying to catch up on the work they’ve missed in the past two weeks.
“I’ve been teaching them about the difference between needs and wants,” says Macpherson. “The girls need to learn parenting skills so they can provide a safe haven, a home for the younger ones. They need grief counselling.”
They also need money, and although the younger kids pitch in, sometimes turkey-catching until 2 a.m., then getting up for school the next day, Macpherson convinced them that a gofundme account could help.
The children, intensely private about the struggles their family has endured since Ryan’s murder, were reluctant: The wounds are still raw.
“Every time something bad happens to our family we have to go through that sorrow and grief we went through with Ryan,” says Chelsy.
After Macpherson talked them through the pros and cons, they decided to go ahead with it.
“We need help,” says Wade softly. “We really do.”
The goal, says Macpherson, who also set up a joint account so the funds will be properly managed, is to raise enough money for a three-year plan so the kids can stay together until the youngest have finished secondary school.
When someone made the first donation, the children were stunned.
“I thought it was a terrible idea at first,” says Nina, adding that the trauma and publicity around Ryan’s murder had taught her to keep her guard up. “I didn’t want people to know what was going on with us.”
It’s not just about money, says Macpherson. “I just wanted them to know that there is a community out there that cares,” she says. “That they are not alone.”
Bed, Bath and Beyond and Sleep Country Canada have stepped up to provide mattresses, bedding and some home supplies; Vancouver dentist Dr. Kelly Jordan has offered to provide dental care; and they were able to raise enough funds to pay for the funeral expenses, but there is a long road ahead with needs that include food, clothing and education.
Nadine has already set aside her goal of going back to school to study agriculture. On Thursday, she put in a large vegetable garden in the backyard.
“I can feed the family with this garden,” she says, pointing out where the tomatoes and corn, zucchini, watermelon and swiss chard have gone in.
Kelsy Saint-Ange plants flowers in the front yard on May 24, 2017.
Macpherson says she is committed to helping the siblings through this “never-ending nightmare.”
“I’ve made a commitment that I’m going to be here and I’m going to do the best I can to support and help and advocate for these beautiful young people.”
Outside, the landlord is waiting. A young woman who accompanies the landlord explains that they are sorry about the family’s circumstances, but if the rent is not paid by the 28th of the month, they will have to go.
That’s when Macpherson steps in, introduces herself and says she will vouch for the girls. When it becomes clear that verbal assurances are not enough, she offers to co-sign the lease. There is enough money from the gofundme to cover next month’s rent. It’s a start.
As Nadine and Nina take care of the paperwork, Kelsy, 14, the youngest and the quietest, slips away from the group and begins purposefully digging in a patch of dirt with a trowel. As her older sisters grapple with the landlord’s questions, Kelsy plants a flowering chrysanthemum. It is a small gesture, but it speaks of determination, of hope and home.
If you’d like to help the Saint-Ange family, go to gofundme.com.