One Canadian soldier was killed and four others were wounded when their armoured vehicle struck a roadside bomb north of the city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, the Canadian military said Tuesday.
Trooper Karine Blais, 21, died at about 5 p.m. local time on Monday when the vehicle struck an improvised explosive device in the Shah Wali Kot district, said Brig.-Gen. Jonathan Vance, the commander of Canadian troops in Kandahar.
Blais was from the 12th Armoured Regiment of Canada based at Canadian Forces Base Valcartier in Quebec. She was serving with the 2nd Battalion, Royal 22nd Regiment Battle Group, and is only the second female soldier to be killed since Canada first deployed troops to Afghanistan in early 2002.
In May 2006, Capt. Nicola Goddard died in a grenade attack in the Panjwaii district, west of the city of Kandahar.
Blais babysat Cynthia Gagnon's three children for five years in the small community of Les Méchins on the Gaspé peninsula in Quebec.
Gagnon said that many people in the community of about 1,500 knew Blais, who had also worked at a local convenience store and a restaurant.
Gagnon described Blais as a confident and bright young woman. She was highly spoken of, full of energy and very helpful, Gagnon told CBC News in French.
Lt.-Col. Jocelyn Paul, leader of the Royal 22nd Regiment, said Blais and the wounded soldiers were conducting a presence patrol in the area when the vehicle struck the IED.
There was no indication of combatants operating in the area and it was a road that had been travelled many times, Paul said.
Paul downplayed Blais' gender, saying the Canadian army has come a long way over the last 15 years.
'Showing a lot of courage'
"Right now you can see women serving in every type of environment," Paul said. "Those women are showing a lot of courage. They are here standing shoulder to shoulder with all the men in the whole battle group."
Everyone is considered part of the team no matter their gender, ethnicity or language, he said.
The injured soldiers were evacuated by helicopter to Kandahar Airfield. Two soldiers remain in the care of medical staff, Vance said. Their names will not be released, in adherence to military policy.
Paul told reporters that the wounded soldiers sustained serious injuries but are expected to be all right.
Vance expressed "heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Trooper Blais."
"The days and months ahead will be extremely difficult for all who knew Karine," he said.
Blais had only been in the "theatre of operations" for two weeks and was ready to begin her tour of duty and conduct security patrols in the area, Vance said.
"She was an energetic soldier who gave 100 per cent to every challenge she faced," he added. "Frank and direct, she demonstrated the qualities of a future leader who was respected by all members of her squadron."
Canadians grateful, Harper says
Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a written statement regarding Blais' death on Tuesday, saying that Canadians are extremely proud of her service.
"This is a challenging mission that poses many risks to the brave men and women of the Canadian Forces," Harper said. "Canadians will be forever grateful for Trooper Blais' sacrifice."
Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean also issued a statement on Tuesday, saying that she was "deeply saddened" by the death of Blais.
"Our soldiers risk their lives answering the call of duty by working shoulder to shoulder with a people who for decades have been left idle and subjected to terror, intimidation, insecurity and barbarous confrontations on a daily basis," Jean said.
The life of Blais — who leaves behind her mother, Josée, grandmother Laurette and brother Billy — didn't go to waste, Vance said.
"She believed in her role in Afghanistan, and her dedication to the overall mission is beyond commendable."
Vance said her sacrifice will "never be forgotten by Canadian and Afghans alike, for her life was lost in the pursuit of peace and stability in a country ravaged by decades of war."
The latest death brings the total of Canadian soldiers killed to 117 since Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan began. One diplomat and two aid workers have also been killed.
Earlier in April, the outgoing commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force warned that Canadian soldiers would see escalating violence this year in Afghanistan, largely because of the presence of more U.S. troops.