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A year after Amqui, Que., truck attack, survivor is moving forward, one line dance at a time

Pauline Desmarais never misses a night of line dancing, but she does take regular breaks to rest.  (Sébastien Ross/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Pauline Desmarais never misses a night of line dancing, but she does take regular breaks to rest. (Sébastien Ross/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Pauline Desmarais has no memory of what happened on March 13, 2023 — the day she survived a deadly attack in the town of Amqui, Que.

The driver of a pickup truck had slammed into a group of pedestrians walking down the street, injuring eight pedestrians and killing three people, including her husband of 51 years, Jean Lafrenière, 74.

Doctors feared for Desmarais's life, but in the end she pulled through and is now on the long road to recovery, finding her feet on the dance floor where she continues to heal one step at a time.

For five weeks, Desmarais lay in a medically induced coma. "They brought me into the operating room two to three times a day," said Desmarais, who then spent almost two weeks in a trauma centre.

Slowly, she underwent physiotherapy and occupational therapy before many months of physical rehabilitation.

At first, she couldn't walk, but with the help of a special belt and her physiotherapist, she began to take her first steps. "I was exhausted. Just one step," she said.

Jean Lafrenière, Desmarais’s husband, was 73 when he was killed last March.
Jean Lafrenière, Desmarais’s husband, was 73 when he was killed last March.

Jean Lafrenière, Desmarais’s husband, was 73 when he was killed last March. (François Gagnon/Radio-Canada)

It was two months before she could even walk again, but at no time in her recovery did she even consider giving up her passion: line dancing.

"I like to dance," she said, her face lighting up.

Just six months after the attack, she returned to the dance floor at the Club de danse l'Amitié d'Amqui " as soon as I felt that I had enough strength in my legs, then enough balance," though she needed the help of a cane.

"I find it difficult not being able to finish the full dance," she admits, adding she has to take frequent breaks.

Line dancing at the dance club isn't just exercise; it's a place to meet friends, even if her dance partner for half a century is no longer there to accompany her.

"In October or November, I attended a party and then there was a couple's dance, a waltz. I started crying because it was his favourite dance," said Desmarais, who between 1991 and 1993 served as the mayor of Albertville, a small town in the Lower St. Lawrence region of the province.

Pauline Desmarais line dances two to three times a week.
Pauline Desmarais line dances two to three times a week.

Pauline Desmarais line dances two to three times a week. (Sébastien Ross/Radio-Canada)

"At the same time, if I stop doing all that we did together, what would I do? Am I going to stay here and cry, to bore myself? Out of the question."

Since autumn, Desmarais has taken part in dances and has even helped teach line dancing on Mondays.

But she is still in mourning, recalling the daily walks she would take with her husband.

"You never think that something like that can happen in a small country town like Amqui," said Desmarais.

"I was told that we left the car at the grocery store and then went for a walk, but I don't remember that," she said, struggling to recall the details of her last memory of Lafrenière.

"He's sitting at the end of the table," she recalls. "He's looking outside […], we're having lunch. I put my hand on his. He looks at me, gives me a smile and continues eating. I don't know if it was that same afternoon or if it was the day before. It's really not clear to me."

On March 13, 2023, a gathering took place in Amqui to honour the dead and the survivors.

"I couldn't be there at the funeral, I was still in a coma," she said. She hopes to organize her own gathering, with her siblings and her children, to feel the support and love that helped others get through their pain.

In the meantime, Desmarais says she isn't following the trial of the man charged with killing her husband and nearly ending her own life. Her next steps, she says, are about looking forward.