Canadian ski federation accused of muzzling athletes who were allegedly abused
An investigation by La Presse has revealed that Alpine Canada had been warned about Bertrand Charest’s reputation before it hired him and that it muzzled athletes he allegedly victimized.
But the trial won’t answer why Bertrand Charest was able to continue operating in the sports world until 2015 without anybody sounding the alarm. An investigation by La Presse has revealed that Alpine Canada, the national ski federation that oversees competitive skiing in the country, had been warned about Charest’s reputation before it hired him and that it muzzled athletes he allegedly victimized.
At least two coaches on the national ski team warned the organization about Charest’s behaviour toward his young athletes.
Germain Barrette was working with the federation when he heard the team wanted to recruit Charest, who was then employed by Quebec’s provincial ski team. He said Charest already had a bad reputation.
The persistent rumours and warnings did not prevent the sports federation from hiring the new “rising star” of coaching, and allowing him to travel around the world with underaged girls who looked up to him like a god.
Charest’s trial for sexual interference and sexual assault begins Monday in a Saint-Jérôme court, north of Montreal. He was arrested in 2015 after one of his alleged victims decided to report him nearly 20 years after the fact. She had recently discovered that he had started working again as a ski instructor. Since then, 11 other alleged victims have come forward.
A publication ban is in place on the case, protecting details about evidence and the identity of the victims.
Charest, 51, faces 57 charges. More than half of the charges date to when he was coach of the national junior team, between 1996 and 1998.
None of the allegations against Charest have been proven in court; the trial will determine whether the former coach is guilty or not. But this is also the tale of a sports federation that looked the other way, or possibly even closed its eyes entirely to what was occurring.
“We pretty much knew what was happening and we told the executive: ‘Listen, this person is dangerous. I don’t think we should be bringing him onto the Canadian national team,’ ” said Barrette, who coached the boys ski team in 1996. “They quite simply didn’t listen to us.”
“We knew what was happening behind closed doors with these girls. (Charest) was someone who spoke badly about all his work colleagues, including me. He could have said lots of bad things about us to try and get us to stop. We told Joze Sparovec (head of development) who was in charge at that time and it was like we were talking to ourselves.”
At the time, Alpine Canada was launching a new junior training program. They wanted the best athletes. And the best were in Quebec — being trained by Charest.
“Bertrand was like, ‘If you want my athletes, you have to take me,’ ” recalled Daniel Lavallée, the current director general of Ski Québec who was working for the federation in 1996.
“First thing I knew, (Alpine Canada) offered him a job.”
In September 1997, Mitch Conner was participating as a coach at a training camp in New Zealand with the junior national team. According to Conner, his colleague was “out of control.”
“There were all sorts of strange things. He made it so that he was always alone with the girls. I had never seen that sort of thing.”
Conner said he shared his worries with his superiors.
“It was weird. At the time, it was like these things weren’t important,” he said.
Charest not only kept his job, but he succeeded in pushing Conner aside by complaining about him publicly, Conner said.
Things came to a head in February 1998. During a competition abroad, a fight broke out between three female skiers. They had discovered that their coach had been having intimate relations with the other girls at the same time as them, according to several sources.
Word of the situation made it back to the head office of Alpine Canada in Calgary. A member of the executive made an emergency trip to Europe to bring Charest back to Canada. The federation opened an investigation and the coach was suspended. He resigned several days later, according to a statement Alpine Canada issued in March 2015.
That’s when an alleged vast coverup began.
The three athletes were advised to keep quiet and warned about the possible loss of sponsorships and the impact this could have on their careers, five sources told La Presse. These sources included some who were close to the investigation, and others from the competitive ski world who were not allowed to speak publicly.
Three of those same sources said Alpine Canada had the skiers sign forms absolving the organization of legal responsibility. The exact terms that were used in the documents are not known and have since been “lost” by Alpine Canada, according to a source.
In 1998, another female member of the junior national team — future Olympian Britt Janyk — complained about the coach to the ski federation. She said she had been the victim of psychological harassment and asked for help. They also recommended she keep quiet about what happened.
“When Britt went to see Alpine Canada to discuss the harassment and the help they could provide to her, they suggested that the best thing to do would be to let it go and to do nothing,” said her mother, Andrée, when contacted this week in Whistler, B.C. She said it was a member of the board of directors who had made the suggestion without revealing the name of the individual.
Sources said it was also members of the federation’s board who muzzled the three other skiers.
Janyk refused to keep quiet. Shocked by the fact that Charest was allowed to resign rather than be reported to the police, she contacted the RCMP herself. It was the only complaint made against the coach at the time — one for psychological harassment. Alpine Canada never alerted the police to the alleged sexual assaults.
In 1998, Patrick LaForge was president of the federation. He would go on to become president of the Edmonton Oilers, a position he held until recently. LaForge did not respond to requests for comment on this article. Neither did the lawyer for Robin MacFarlane, who was a member of the Alpine Canada board and remains involved in competitive skiing, or Joze Sparovec’s lawyer.
Despite all the precautions taken by members of Alpine Canada, Charest’s resignation was the talk of the ski slopes.
But Lavallée, of Ski Québec, said Alpine Canada never revealed the details of what had occurred, not even to the provincial associations.
“Clearly, we didn’t have a lot of information from our national association in 1998. In fact, we didn’t have any of the details,” he said. “We heard the stories from the junior worlds (where the fight between the three skiers broke out). We heard that he had offered his resignation. But it was never clear. Everyone was going on what was being said on the slopes.”
Concerned about the rumours, Lavallée said he contacted the Canadian Ski Coaches Federation (now affiliated with Alpine Canada) to separate fact from fiction.
“I called the person there and I asked what happened to Bertrand, because you have to be licensed to coach. The answer I got was that as long as there are no formal accusations, legally they don’t have the right to revoke his licence.”
Lavallée received no further details.
Charest continued in the sports world. After 1998, he coached soccer and hockey before being hired at the Mont-Blanc ski school, north of Montreal, in 2015. It was one of the complainants saw him on the slopes two years ago that she contacted the Canadian Ski Coaches Federation asking that they do something. When they were unable to intervene, she called the police.
Despite several interview requests as well as a summary of the facts that would appear in this article, Alpine Canada refused to discuss the matter or respond to questions, citing the criminal trial that begins next week.