Women abused by ex-national ski coach want better safeguards to protect young athletes

Four former elite alpine skiers spoke publicly Monday about the trauma that still haunts them after they were sexually assaulted by a trusted coach — and what they want to happen to make sure athletes training don't suffer similar abuse.

4 women speak publicly about abuse they suffered and hopes for the next generation

Amélie-Frédérique Gagnon, Gail Kelly, Anna Prchal and Geneviève Simard, all of whom endured abuse from their former ski coach as teenagers, say immediate change is needed to ensure all sport is safe for young athletes. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

It robbed them of their childhoods, their ambition, their dreams. 

Now four women who remained in the shadows even as they stepped forward to condemn their abuser because of court-ordered publication bans, stepped into the light to try and ensure no other young athletes suffer the same fate. 

With trembling voices, each of the four women — Amélie-Frédérique Gagnon, Gail Kelly, Anna Prchal and Geneviève Simard — described how their lives were forever altered by the actions of their former ski coach, Bertrand Charest, convicted of abusing them when they were young competitive skiers in the 1990s.

"I have spent the last 26 years working extremely hard to forget a time that really should have been filled with dreams and personal growth both socially and professionally," Gagnon told a news conference in Montreal Monday morning. 

"The only way I can justify to relive my abusive past is to provide a platform for others that will give them additional protections and safeguards.

This was not provided to me in the past and as a result 11 other athletes suffered the same abuse from the same predator."

Charest is serving a 12-year sentence after being convicted in June 2017 of 37 charges, including sexual assault and sexual exploitation, for offences dating back to the 1990s involving nine victims.

The victims, between the ages of 12 and 19 at the time of the offences, were all competitive skiers he coached. The identities of the other victims are still under the publication ban.

The four women can now speak publicly after a court lifted a publication ban on their names last Friday.

"Our predator created chaos within the team and used us against each other," said Geneviè​ve Simard.

"Things did not turn out so well for him. Instead of being isolated, we are now united."

Bertrand Charest is accused of sexually abusing 12 athletes between 1991 and 1998. He was convicted in 2017 of 37 charges, including sexual assault and sexual exploitation. (Radio-Canada)

Accredited safety program

They were joined by lawyers who have taken up their cases pro bono as well as representatives from B2ten, an independent organization that provides funding for amateur athletes, the Coaching Association of Canada and Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada.

They are calling for a cross-federation commitment to athlete safety and funding for an accredited program that would include training, new policies and procedures as well as establish new independent safety officers.

They want to see the government make the implementation of safety programs a requirement for funding for sports federations.

They also called for the universal implementation of the so-called "rule of two," which would ensure that no young athletes are alone with any adults in a coaching, sport psychology or administrative role for any significant period.

"This is a painful situation that gives us the opportunity to change Canada's landscape in sport," said Lorraine Lafrenière, chief executive officer of the Coaching Association of Canada.

"It should not matter what sport a person competes in, it should not matter who their coach is, it should not matter who their sports psych is, it shouldn't matter who their administrator is, they should know that each individual has had the training, the understanding and follows a universal code."

In a news release, Quebec's alpine skiing federation said it supported the idea of establishing a prevention program linked to funding. It  also highlighted that it already uses the "rule of two" and now conducts criminal records checks for training and supervisory personnel. 

Protecting the next generation

Several of the women who came forward cited their own children as one of the driving forces behind their decision to go public with their stories. 

In an interview with the CBC's Adrienne Arsenault on Sunday, Kelly said she fought the publication ban because she has three children under the age of seven and doesn't want them to go through what had happened to her.

I feel that we didn't get the supports that we were supposed to have by the federation.- Gail Kelly, one of 4 victims who fought to have a publication ban lifted

"I don't want them to be on a provincial team or a national team right now with the rules that are in place because it's not safe for them," an emotional Kelly told Arsenault.

All four of the women said there needs to be measures in place in all sports to ensure that children and young athletes do not suffer the same abuse and isolation. 

CBC's Adrienne Arsenault sat down with four former Canadian athletes 3:40

There was a time when the sports federation Alpine Canada was made aware of some of the abuse, they said. But to them the response didn't feel like justice or resolution.

"I feel that we didn't get the support that we were supposed to have by the federation," Kelly said.

Alpine Canada has apologized to Charest's victims and said it could have offered them more support. It also said that it has learned from this situation by rewriting its policies, requiring mandatory training and improving governance.

"We are committed to further strengthening our safety program to ensure no one ever suffers like these women have suffered," the federation said in a statement to CBC News.

Quebec Recreation and Sports Minister Sébastien Proulx said he salutes the courage of the women who have come forward and that their message cannot be ignored. 

"I have young children myself — they're not playing at a high level, but they are playing sports," he said. "Fundamentally, sports should be played in a healthy and safe environment, yes, to improve performance, but also for self-esteem. It directly corresponds to the development of their full potential."

Charest, who has denied the accusations, is appealing some of the charges for which he was found guilty.

With files from CBC's Adrienne Arsenault, Tiffany Foxcroft