Sylvie Bernier: a story told

Seventeen years after seeing her five-year-old nephew drown before her eyes, Sylvie Bernier is ready to speak publicly about this tragedy that has changed her life and that of her entire family. In memory of Raphael and that his death was not in vain.

Sylvie Bernier does not just talk about healthy living habits, she leads by example. For this first interview about the publication of a book and a documentary about a tragedy that she experienced 17 years ago, she goes walking around her house with her phone and headphones. She has taken this habit for a few years. The journalist will do the same, which makes her laugh and makes her happy.

The subject is serious. On July 24, 2002, Sylvie Bernier witnessed, helplessly, the drowning of her nephew, Raphael Bernier. With her family and her brother’s, she participated in a canoe trip on the Nouvelle River in Gaspesie.

The activity did not announce any particular dangers, especially in the presence of three so-called guides. It turned into a nightmare when the boat of his brother Jean-Francois, in which Raphael was, hit an ice jam and branches. The boat capsized before being engulfed and driven to the bottom by the current. Stuck, the kid could never get to the surface despite his lifejacket.

Sylvie Bernier, who had been to the same place a few minutes earlier with her husband, Gilles, and one of his three daughters, swam to the scene of the accident. His sister-in-law France and his other nephew, Antoine, aged 7, were safe and sound.

But minutes passed and Raphael was desperate for the call. His father spotted his arm under the boat. Sylvie Bernier wanted to dive to rescue him, but his brother prevented him, judging the maneuver too dangerous.

Anger, despair, anxiety

For 16 years, she felt guilty. She, the Olympic diving champion, could not dive that day to save his nephew. And she, at the end of the holiday, which resulted in his family and that of his brother in Gaspesie, as a guest of honor on the occasion of a fundraising dinner for the benefit of the salmon river.

Except on rare occasions, she has never spoken publicly about the tragedy that has eaten away from the inside, angry, led to despair and made him live anxiety attacks. Even relatives she has known for 15 years were not aware.

With the support of Raphael’s family, she found the strength to break the silence last year. First by participating in a documentary, which will be broadcast on Saturday night at Radio-Canada (at 10:30 pm), then by writing a complementary book, The day I could not dive, published me and launched officially tonight.

In 2004, a coroner made 33 recommendations as a result of this tragedy. In an emotional statement at the publication of the report, Sylvie Bernier had expressed the desire of her family to raise awareness of the dangers of white water canoeing without adequate supervision.

“We could have avoided the accident. But I closed the coroner’s report and I knew that I was humanly incapable of taking this at arm’s length and asking my family to follow up on it. – Sylvie Bernier

Following a long personal journey, marked by an illuminating march on the road to Santiago de Compostela last year, she embarked on the shooting of the documentary, to which her sister-in-law France and her Brother Jean-Fran—Āois participated.

His return by canoe on the river, with an experienced guide, is particularly moving. His relief is evident when the current director of the New River ZEC reiterates that a rescue attempt in a current of such force was doomed to failure.

“Today I do not feel guilty anymore,” she said. I thought the scar closed, but filming the documentary and writing the book showed me no. The scar is still there, I will live with all my life. But now, I’m able to talk about Raphael. I can say with confidence that we can make sense of the unthinkable, the death of a child before his eyes. ”


One of his “missions” is the implementation of the coroner’s recommendations. The adventure tourism industry has been taking control since Raphael’s death, but there is no regulation that requires a company to meet established standards such as guide certification, equipment compliance, external control, setting up a rescue plan, etc.

“There is resistance to change, says Bernier. Some organizations do not want the rules of the game that may not be their business. But I will not let go. ”

As Chair of the Table on the physically active lifestyle, she does not want her message about safety to be misinterpreted. “The biggest danger facing us today as a society is sitting on the couch,” she insists.

His other workhorse is the prevention of drowning. “Today, in Quebec, one in two children drowns if it falls unexpectedly in the deep water,” she says indignantly.

She is therefore assisting with the Quebec Lifesaving Society’s Swimming for Survival program, which aims to introduce all third year children to swimming. All royalties from his book will go to the new Raphael-Bernier Fund, which will serve this cause.

“I’m 55, I could not have said that 17 years ago, but today, this drama gives me wings on this project. It’s a mission. It can not be that I, a diver, have experienced that and can not make sense of it. I had the best time of my life in the water, and the worst time of my life in the water. For the rest of my life, I want to think of Raphael smiling through these thousands of children who will discover the pleasures of water. ”

A last dive

On October 21, 2018, Sylvie Bernier experienced her reconciliation with water in a very concrete way. That day, she came back on the three-meter springboard for the first time almost since the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, when she was 20 years old. As an epilogue to the documentary, she performed the same dive that earned her the gold medal. To get there, she had to undergo a rigorous training, supervised by her no less rigorous coach Donald Dion, retired for the occasion. Even his swimsuit was a perfect copy of the 1984, thanks to the scissors of Olympic medalist Emile Heymans, who owns his own design company. “It was very moving, I did it for Raphael, but it’s

The documentary Sylvie Bernier: The day I was not able to dive will be broadcast Saturday at 10:30 pm on Radio-Canada.

The day I could not dive