Toxic culture pervaded Montreal high school basketball program where coaches charged, students say
Former students at École secondaire Saint-Laurent say they were subjected to name-calling, manipulation
Warning: This story contains disturbing language and subject matter.
For most of her high school life, Mary was on the basketball court five days a week playing the game she loved.
But the teenager would slip into the gym knowing she'd have to steel herself against a constant barrage of insults from Daniel Lacasse, her coach at École secondaire Saint-Laurent.
"He told me I was nothing. He said I was dumb — I'm not going to go anywhere in life," Mary said in an interview. CBC News is not using her real name to protect her privacy.
"Honestly, it was horrible. He was very abusive, emotionally. He used horrible, homophobic words."
Lacasse, 43, was arrested by Montreal police at the school earlier this month, along with two other coaches, Charles-Xavier Boislard, also 43, and Robert Luu, 31.
The sex-related accusations involve two former players on the high school girls basketball team, but police say there could be more victims dating as far back as 2005.
Lacasse faces one charge of sexual exploitation. None of the allegations have been proven in court.
In the aftermath of the arrests, CBC News spoke with four former and current basketball players at the school, as well as a staff member and others with knowledge of the basketball program.
The players recounted how Lacasse called them derogatory names and derided their physical appearance.
"He'd use words like osti d'homosexuel (f--king homosexual), plottes sales (dirty c--ts). All disgusting words in practices and games," said Mary.
Several players said he was manipulative, as well as emotionally and mentally abusive, while overseeing the Express basketball program.
The accounts from students and staff — and a parent who brought forward a complaint against the school — also paint a portrait of a basketball program that appeared to prioritize winning over the mental well-being of the athletes.
'He just messed with every player's head'
The walls inside the high school gym are covered with dozens of championship banners, a testament to the success of its sports programs.
That strong track record attracted talented players to the school, but the toxic atmosphere prompted some players to leave.
Shamiera Plunkett was a key player for Express during the 2015-16 season, but her talent didn't spare her from the abuse.
"He told me I was a whore," said Plunkett, now 22. "He was just abusive emotionally, physically, mentally. He just messed with every player's head basically."
At the time, Plunkett had a strained relationship with her father, who was living in Toronto. She said Lacasse used that against her when things weren't going well on the court.
Plunkett said Lacasse's presence was suffocating. She said many of her teammates saw Lacasse as a father figure, but that she wasn't like the other girls.
"For me respect is key, and Daniel didn't respect me," she said. "He would build you up to tear you down."
Plunkett left for Toronto after Grade 10, in large part, she said, to get away from the school.
A winning culture, but at what cost?
Lacasse helped build the school into a veritable basketball factory, sending dozens of girls on to colleges and universities across Canada and the United States.
"He cultivated discipline through the sport. And it showed on the court and in the classroom," said Philippe Malo, who runs a blog on Quebec high school sports and has tracked the basketball program's rise.
Malo said many of the Express players came from immigrant families with parents dedicated to bettering their lives in Canada.
"It's not like the parents can afford to buy them a bunch of stuff. Chalets on weekends aren't a thing," Malo said. "So, for many kids, sports become an important escape."
A current staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, said Lacasse's abusive language wasn't a secret.
The staff member said he heard Lacasse call his players "stupid" and would comment on their weight.
"He was a bully to everyone," the staff member said. But Lacasse also held his players to account academically, the staff member said.
He said colleagues spoke to Lacasse about his behaviour, but little changed. The staff member believes Lacasse's success on the court may have led the school to look the other way.
"He was making the school look good. He was making the school board look good," he said.
"Everybody who complained, it never worked out. It never reached any disciplinary action. It always fell on deaf ears."
A parent's complaint goes unheeded
Grace Ngoyi's daughter, who played under Lacasse in 2018, said she witnessed the coach yelling at players during games and practices.
"It was the lack of respect. He had no respect for his players and I was getting more and more uncomfortable with that."
She filed a formal notice to Lacasse and wrote a letter to the school to denounce his behaviour.
Ngoyi said she was met with resistance from the school. She was told by the school they would speak with Lacasse about his behaviour. Satisfied, she dropped her complaint, but says now she feels a sense of guilt.
"I could have fought harder, despite everything that comes with it. Because we would have found out about this earlier, what's going on right now," she said.
Multiple investigations launched
Lacasse, meanwhile, was being rewarded for his success on the court. Basketball Quebec tapped him to lead a girl's team from 2016 to 2019. He led them to a national championship that final year.
In the wake of the criminal charges, the Quebec government launched an investigation into Basketball Quebec.
The organization said in a statement it would undertake its own "efforts to seek and invite potential victims among those who have been in contact with Mr. Lacasse."
'It gave me anxiety and stress and I still have trauma from that.'- Mary, former Express player and Saint-Laurent student
Both the school and the service centre that oversees it, the Centre service scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, declined a request for an interview for this story.
The lawyer representing Lacasse and Boislard, Eddy Ménard, declined to comment on the allegations. Luu's lawyer did not return a request for comment by email and phone. The coaches have been suspended pending their legal issues.
The service centre has ordered an independent investigation following the criminal charges and, in a statement, said the allegations were "worrying." Quebec's Education Ministry has also ordered an investigation into the school.
Influence beyond the court
Another former student, who played her three final years of high school under Lacasse, said the angry outbursts were something many girls learned to live with.
"Our team would be scared to mess up during plays," she said.
The student said that Boislard, who coached her prior to Lacasse, also often hurled insults at players.
Boislard is charged with sexual exploitation, sexual interference, invitation to sexual touching and sexual assault.
Plunkett said Boislard once, in a fit of rage because the girls weren't playing well, threw a table inside the locker room.
But students say it was Lacasse's insults that cut the deepest. At one point, a student recalled, Lacasse told her, ''You'll never make it far in life.'"
One student who didn't play on the team, but interacted with Lacasse when he was in charge of detention, said he made those in the classroom feel humiliated.
"You would never see him smile normally," the student said. "But when he was humiliating a student or intimidating one of them, that's when you would see him smile."
Following the arrests, a student who played for Lacasse and is still at the school said the team is in shock. Players have been trying to focus on basketball — and alumni have been running practices — but the student said the team is in disarray.
"There are some players you don't even see at school anymore."
'I worked hard to prove him wrong'
Like Plunkett, Mary also tried to quit. When she told him she no longer wanted to be a part of Express, Lacasse was livid and sent her a series of angry texts, shared with CBC News.
'He said 'No one ever betrays me. You're going to regret that. No one stabs me in the back' and then he called me a 'f--king idiot,'" she said.
In the end, Mary stayed with the team.
Yet even after she graduated, she couldn't put Lacasse behind her. Mary said she learned that Lacasse called the CEGEP she was trying to get into, telling them she was a waste of time and wasn't smart enough to pass any classes.
Mary said her experience with Lacasse haunted her.
"It gave me anxiety and stress and I still have trauma from that," she said.
After being told for years that she was too dumb to amount to anything, she used his words as fuel. She rebuilt her self-confidence — flourishing in CEGEP and eventually earning a university degree.
"The reason why I was really successful in my education is because I worked hard to prove him wrong," she said. "I was an underdog and he never, ever believed in me."