Too sick with shame to ski, recalls witness at ex-Alpine Canada coach's sexual assault trial

The first witness at the sexual assault trial of Bertrand Charest, the former national ski coach who faces 57 charges, says the accused began kissing her and touching her breasts in 1997 when she was 17.

Allegations against Bertrand Charest date back to 1990s, involve 12 girls and teens, aged 12 to 19

Bertrand Charest is accused of sexually abusing 12 alleged victims, who were between the ages of 12 and 19 at the time. (CBC)

The first witness at the sexual assault trial of a former national ski coach who faces 57 charges said as a shy 17-year-old member of Canada's national junior ski team, she felt too guilty and ashamed to talk to her roommate about her sexual relationship with Bertrand Charest.

The woman, now in her 30s, was under cross-examination by defence lawyer Antonio Cabral on the first day of 51-year-old Charest's trial, underway in Saint-Jérôme, Que., north of Montreal.

Charest, seated in the prisoner's box and dressed in a black hoodie, was separated from the witness by a white screen, so the two cannot see each other. 

Witness met Charest at Chile ski camp

Under questioning earlier Thursday from Crown prosecutor Marie-Nathalie Tremblay, the witness said that she first met Charest at a ski camp in Chile when she was 13, but she really began to know him when she was chosen to be on the national junior team in the spring of 1996. 

She said Charest once joked that she couldn't name five top World Cup skiers but that she could probably name five snack cakes  — all adding up to the suggestion that she was unsophisticated.

In August 1996, she testified in response to questions from the Crown, she went to a training camp in New Zealand where she said Charest was hard on her and made her "feel worthless."

She said the relationship changed, however, when Bertrand persuaded her family to allow her to attend his ski academy in Mont-Tremblant. 

She said he became more friendly and encouraging with her, but he also began touching her breasts and buttocks during isolated moments on the ski hill, and then gave her a surprise kiss on the mouth. 

Too sick from shame and guilt to ski

She testified that the relationship became sexual in January 1997, during training in Chamonix, France.

She detailed sexual encounters that included intercourse, masturbation and performing oral sex on Charest during trips for training and competition during that year. She described three separate encounters in August 1997, when she was in New Zealand to train.

She said in September 1997, she began to feel stressed and sick, experiencing episodes of vomiting, palpitations, migraines and other pain. She said she couldn't move and missed lots of training.

She testified that Charest took her to see his father, who was a doctor, and later to a second physician. Both times, Charest was present while she was examined, she said.

The woman testified that she realized her health problems were being caused by her relationship with Charest.

She said she was sick from shame and guilt. She said she didn't recognize herself, and neither did the people around her. She said she lost all passion for skiing.

Sent Valentine's note, witness admits

In his cross-examination, the defence lawyer asked the witness why she sent the ski coach a letter one Valentine's Day.

"You're a rare pearl I wouldn't want to lose," Cabral read to the court, quoting from the note.

"At the time, I thought I was in love," the witness replied. 

Devastating discovery

The court also heard that during a world championship event in France in 1998, the witness learned that two other skiers were in a similar relationship with Charest. She said finding that out left her devastated. 

She said one of the skiers confronted Charest about the situation. The next day, she said, officials with Alpine Canada arrived to remove Charest from the house where the team stayed. 

The woman said she was poised to win a medal at that event but dropped out because of the stress.

Charest is facing charges for some, but not all, of the incidents the woman brought up today. 

The 57 charges, including sexual assault and breach of trust, stem from alleged incidents that happened between 1991 and 1998, involving a dozen victims between the ages of 12 and 19 at the time.

Charest, who worked with Alpine Canada's women's development team between 1996 and 1998, has been in custody since his arrest in March 2015.

His trial is expected to last four weeks.