Bertrand Charest abuse case spotlights the need for real change
Steps can be taken to improve athlete safety
As a former Olympic athlete, I know first-hand that it takes dedication, hard work and perseverance to realize your dream. You're expected to make sacrifices and dedicate yourself entirely to the pursuit.
Within that desire for excellence, a unique vulnerability exists. A bond is formed between coach and athlete. It's a relationship where an eager student looks toward a trusted mentor who promises to deliver the road map to making your wish a reality.
For Allison Forsyth, that vulnerability was exploited in a way that has left her deeply scarred.
The retired alpine skier is part of a second wave of women coming forward to speak publicly about the sexual abuse they say they suffered at the hands of their former coach Bertrand Charest.
Forsyth, Katie Bertram, Gillian McFetridge and Émilie Cousineau join Amelie Frederique-Gagnon, Gail Kelly, Anna Prchal and Genevieve Simard in coming out from the shadows to put a face and a voice to the survivors of Charest's abuse.
- Allison Forsyth says Bertrand Charest abuse was covered up
- 4 more women coached by Charest come forward with their stories
Charest is serving a 12-year prison term after he was found guilty last June of 37 of the 57 sex-related charges he was facing. He was acquitted of the charges brought against him by Forsyth due to jurisdictional issues because the alleged incidents occurred outside of Canada. But she is one of the eight victims and alleged victims who have chosen to identify themselves and speak out recently as they call for changes to help protect athletes from abuse.
Forsyth, who competed in the 2002 Olympics, alleges she was sexually abused by Charest in 1997 and 1998 when she was a teenager.
"It wasn't just the time with him that was traumatizing but the time after as well. Trying to re-assimilate myself with the team and then learning to move on," Forsyth, 39, says. "In elite sport, where you are in a competitive environment away from your family, you almost blindly trust in the system. It's a conducive environment for abuse of power, manipulation and controlling behaviour."
'A catalyst for change'
The damage may already be done, but that doesn't mean the page is ready to be turned.
I believe it's an injustice to the women involved if we don't collectively look in the mirror and ask — how do we make sure this doesn't happen again? Not just in alpine skiing, but within a sport system where funding is tied to winning Olympic medals more than it is to ensuring a framework for athlete safety.
"We need to ensure these terrible things suffered by the women are a catalyst for change," says J.D. Miller, whose B2ten organization is lending its voice to those advocating for change. Miller and B2ten want to support the victims within a sports a system that he views as littered with conflicts of interest.
"Organizations need to change by making the matter of protecting athletes from abuse the number one priority," he says. "History shows that an athlete's needs have not always aligned with their sport federation's and the result is the organizational interests trump the need to protect athletes."
- Women abused by Charest want better safeguards to protect athletes
- Simard goes public to create a sporting world free of abuse
It's easy to see how the system failed Forsyth and the other survivors of Charest's abuse. She says she was encouraged to stay quiet about the abuse so she wouldn't lose sponsors. As more and more cases of athlete abuse and the systemic failure to protect the athletes within it make headlines both in Canada and abroad, it's timely to re-evaluate how athlete safety is — or is not — prioritized.
"Governance and policies are only paper. The culture of the organization and the independence within its procedures is what matters," says Miller. "How many times have we seen people look the other way because someone is getting good results? Right now, there is no accountability, no oversight and no independent body auditing organizational safety."
The reason the eight women who came forward fought to oppose the publication ban on their names is because they hope their stories can be a catalyst for the kind of change Miller talks about.
"When I close my eyes and think about my Olympic dream, this [alleged abuse] immediately comes to mind," Forsyth says. "I now ask myself, is this something I want for my children? If you'd asked me before this all happened if I wanted my kids to be elite athletes, I would have said yes. Now I'm not so sure."
As a parent myself, the thought of kids being abused in sport elicits strong emotion, a paralyzing feeling of helplessness. Part of the push for change involves educating parents with some simple questions to start a conversation about their child's sport organization.
"Parents are conditioned to ask, 'is this the right kind of helmet,' not 'is my child's sport ensuring coaches abide by the rule of two,'" says Lorraine Lafrenière, the CEO of the Coaching Association of Canada. "We need to protect our children, and that means more than just ensuring they have the right equipment."
Lafrenière and Miller agree that real action means ensuring the federal government will step up and create a framework that protects athletes uniformly across all Canadian sport.
"An independent safety officer, located in Ottawa, provides the ability for athletes to reach out on a confidential basis without worrying about recrimination," says Miller. "Every year, Heritage Canada outlines 25 different sport funding criteria which sport organizations need to comply with in order to receive Sport Canada funding. An accredited safety program needs to be the 26th.
"We can't sit back and allow for a system that mandates long-term athlete development plans but neglects to mandate and audit a sport organization's safety practices."
The pain in Forsyth's voice as she recounts the abuse she says she suffered while chasing her Olympic dream is enough to bring me to tears. The thought that she was encouraged to stay quiet about the abuse infuriates me. But tears and anger don't, by themselves, create change — people do.
Listening to these women is a starting point, but implementing the changes they are seeking is a way to protect the next generation from suffering a similar fate.
"The changes seem so simple and obvious," Forsyth says. "It's shocking they aren't already in place."