A former Olympic skier from Nanaimo has filed a class-action lawsuit against Alpine Canada, alleging the skiing organization failed to investigate accusations of alleged sexual abuse by a coach.
Allison Forsyth, who competed in the 2002 Winter Games, is seeking to become the representative plaintiff of a certified class of former elite skiers who claim they were psychologically, physically and sexually assaulted, harassed and abused by their coach, Bertrand Charest, while they were members of the Canada’s national junior skiing team.
Alpine Canada is the national governing organization for alpine, para-alpine, and ski-cross racing in Canada. Charest was employed by Alpine Canada as coach from 1996 until 1998.
In 2015, Charest was arrested and charged with 57 counts of alleged sexual offences – including 23 counts of sexual exploitation of minor while in a position of authority or trust – against 12-18-year-old female skiers between 1991 and 1998. In 2017, Charest received a 12-year sentence after he was convicted by the Superior Court of Quebec of 37 charges. He is appealing the decision and has been released on bail.
According to a notice of civil claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court, Forsyth claims that between 1996 and 1998 she and other female members of the ski team were subjected to “systemic abuse, harassment and assault” by Charest and that Alpine Canada is “vicariously liable” for his sexual misconduct.
At the age of 17, Forsyth joined the national ski team and was coached by Charest during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. According to court documents, upon joining the team, Forsyth claims she quickly learned Charest “had a reputation of inappropriate interactions” with female athletes.
In the summer of 1996, while at a training camp in Whistler, Forsyth claims Charest “frequently” slapped her buttocks and commented on her appearance. She claims that in 1997, after hearing a rumour that Charest was involved a relationship with an unnamed athlete, who was a minor at the time, she confronted him. She claims he admitted to the relationship but “wanted it to end.”
Forsyth alleges Charest “immediately” began paying more attention to her, telling her that he could develop her into “a great athlete” and eventually began favouring her and touching her an “intimate manner.” Forsyth claims that as a highly competitive 18-year-old who wanted to be the best, she believed the only way to receive the best coaching was to agree to Charest’s pressure to have sexual interactions with her.
Forsyth’s civil claim goes on to detail numerous instances of alleged inappropriate behaviour by the coach.
In one alleged incident in 1997, Forsyth claims she was inside a bathroom stall at a hotel in Austria, where the team had been training, when Charest entered, “forced her up against the wall” and sexually assaulted her.
Charest continued to abuse, manipulate and coerce Forsyth throughout 1997 according to the civil claim, which alleges the former coach demanded sexual interaction with her by “using her success or failure” as a skier as leverage.
Forsyth claims Charest repeatedly told her he was in love with her, asked her to marry him, isolated her from her teammates and demanded the relationship be kept private. She also claims there were multiple sexual interactions, including intercourse.
The claim accuses Alpine Canada of failing to investigate the coach’s alleged behaviour, explaining that there were long-standing rumours of his treatment of women and failing to respond immediately to reports of sexual misconduct. She also argues Alpine Canada failed to protect female athletes and disregarded its own policies and procedures.
Forsyth claims once she informed Alpine Canada of Charest’s behaviour, the organization told her “she would have to be more careful or the team would lose sponsors.” She claims she also overheard Alpine Canada employees discuss how they could address the situation without generating publicity in a bid not to lose sponsors and that the organization told athletes not to talk about the situation.
Charest was eventually allowed to resign from his position with Alpine Canada, but his licence was never revoked.
Forsyth, in her claim, says she experienced and continues to experience anxiety as well as physical, emotional and psychological trauma.
In a statement to the News Bulletin, Alpine Canada said it is reviewing the claim.
“We are reviewing the details of the lawsuit filed by Allison Forsyth relating to events that occurred in the 1990s. Alpine Canada applauds the tremendous courage Allison and other women have shown in coming forward and speaking out. Their determination and commitment to helping drive change is inspiring,” the statement noted. “For the past 20 years, Alpine Canada has been working to ensure a safe environment for all athletes, and we are continually reviewing best-practices with regards to athlete safety and security.”