OTTAWA — Josée Simard still recalls the spirit of playful mischief that ran through her daughter, Karine Blais, going back to grade school in rural Quebec.
“Once we had a turtle at home. I was brushing my teeth, and she yelled, ‘Mom, don’t brush your teeth with that brush!’” Simard said. It was the same one Blais was using to scrub the family’s pet reptile.
“She was always playing tricks like that … The family’s little clown.”
In subsequent years, Blais fused her light-hearted energy with a sense of community service and self-discipline, joining the Sea Cadets — a youth program sponsored by the navy — at age 12 and enlisting in the Canadian Armed Forces a month after her 18th birthday in 2006.
Three years later, she would be killed when a roadside bomb struck the armoured vehicle she was driving in Afghanistan, not yet two weeks into her first tour of duty.
Blais was the only Quebec woman killed in Canada’s 12-year campaign in Afghanistan, part of a U.S.-led effort that came to a chaotic end in August when the Taliban retook the country.
Her mom has now been named this year’s Silver Cross Mother by the Royal Canadian Legion. She will lay a wreath at the National War Memorial on Remembrance Day next week on behalf of all mothers who’ve lost children in service to Canada.
In a phone interview in French, Simard said the loss of her child shattered the family, leaving a lifelong wound, but that Blais’ spirit lives on in their memories.
“It was incredibly painful for me to let my daughter go to a land of war. A phantom war. I was really, really scared,” Simard said from her home in Les Méchins, a seaside town of 1,200 in Quebec’s Bas-Saint-Laurent region.
“She said to me, ‘Mom, I trained with my comrades to go there.’”
“‘Listen to your heart,’” Simard told her. “Today, I wouldn’t have said the same.”
She said her life went “on pause” for several years after the tragedy and that she eventually opened a snack bar to occupy herself and overcome her grief.
The feeling of futility that set in for Simard as Afghanistan fell to Islamic militants last summer does not negate the sacrifice her daughter made, she said.
“She was a devoted girl to her comrades,” infused with a sense of duty that preceded her service, Simard said.
“She worked at the little dépanneur, and she told everyone, ‘I will be in the military.’ The people of the village didn’t really believe that Karine would ever leave,” her mother said. “But she did.”
Born Jan. 4, 1988, Blais grew up playing hockey and other team sports and enjoyed biking and trail hiking with her brother Billy and her stepbrother and stepsister.
Many in Les Méchins remember Blais as the friendly girl who worked behind the counter at the local convenience store. Town councillor Clement Marceau said at her funeral in 2009 he would never forget her smile, which he enjoyed every time he walked through the doors.
Karine Fortin, a childhood friend who last saw Blais a month before her death, said she spoke at that time about starting a family.
“She was a nice, frank, sincere person who laughed a lot and was always happy,” Fortin, who grew up on the same street, told The Canadian Press less than two weeks after her friend died.
At the hometown commemoration, Blais’ uncle, Mario Blais, said it was time for Ottawa to pull Canadian soldiers out of Afghanistan and that he feared she had died in vain.
“Never forget that we are all very proud of you,” he told the service.
“I love you.”
Blais was killed and four Canadian soldiers injured April 13, 2009, when their Coyote reconnaissance vehicle struck an IED in the Shah Wali Kot district north of Kandahar city.
Although a member of the 12me régiment blindé du Canada, Blais was serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal 22e Regiment – also known as the Van Doos.
Blais was Canada’s second female soldier to die in combat in the war-torn country.
She received an honorary, posthumous promotion to the rank of corporal.
Blais’ memory lives on in a life-sized statue in Les Méchins, backgrounded by the Saint Lawrence River, that commemorates her to passers-by on Quebec’s Route 132.
“If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars,” reads the French inscription, transcribed from Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore.
For Simard, the tears have ebbed, but not ceased.
“She was a dream child,” she said.
“Now we take a new breath, we learn to live without her. But she is always present in our hearts.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2021.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version mistakenly said Blais was the only Quebec soldier killed in Afghanistan.