Woman testifies about ’embarrassing, shocking and uncomfortable’ vaginal exam by former doctor

WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced​ ​​​sexual violence or know someone affected by it.

A former Manitoba doctor is back in provincial court in Winnipeg to face five counts of sexual assault — four months after a previous trial on similar charges was cut short by the Crown.

Arcel Bissonnette is accused of assaulting female patients when he worked in Ste. Anne, southeast of Winnipeg, between 2004 and 2017.

In total, he was charged with 22 counts and has pleaded not guilty to all of them.

On Monday, a former patient told court that during a physical exam in February 2015, Bissonnette repeatedly inserted and removed his fingers from her vagina, about four times in all. He then conducted a breast exam before packing up her file and heading out the door of the exam room, the woman said.

A publication ban is in place on any information that could potentially identify the complainants.

The woman said she was surprised he was leaving so quickly and called to him because she had questions. When he turned, he was holding the file low by his hip but the woman could see he had an erection.

The woman testified the situation, including the exam, was “embarrassing, shocking and uncomfortable” but she did not go to police until she heard news reports in November 2020 about Bissonette being charged with six counts of sex assault, and the police encouraging other potential victims to come forward.

At that time, the woman said she “felt it was my duty” to go to police so the other women would not feel they were alone.

“I guess I felt betrayed in a way, too. Who are you to trust if you can’t trust your doctor?” she said.

Trial for first 6 charges

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba barred Bissonnette from practising as soon as the first six charges were announced. Police laid an additional 16 counts in 2021 after more women filed reports.

A trial on the original six charges was held in January 2023 but ended before it could really begin. After a week of adjournments, the Crown entered a stay of proceedings, saying the likelihood of conviction had changed with new evidence that came to light. 

The current judge-only trial is for five counts and is scheduled to last until May 26. There were originally six but one was stayed as part of the first trial.

Crown prosecutor Renee Lagimodiere told court a total of six witnesses will be called, five of whom are former patients and one of whom is a doctor who will testify as to the proper procedures for physical exams.

The remaining 10-count indictment against Bissonnette is set for yet another trial, beginning in February 2024.

Lawyer challenges memories

During cross-examination, defence lawyer Lisa LaBossiere challenged the woman on her memory of the events, noting more than five years had passed between her exam and when she reported to police.

“Recalling something that happened six months ago can be difficult with the passage of time,” LaBossiere said.

“When it comes to physicals, you remember more,” the woman replied.

But LaBossiere noted several inconsistencies with what the woman said to police in 2020 and her Monday testimony, including the order of events in February 2015. She also said she had not yet viewed the video recording of her police statement, then changed her testimony to say she did.

Monday was also the first time the woman mentioned anything about a file, said LaBossiere, who cast doubt on the story, saying physical patient files no longer exist — they are all stored on computers.

“I could be mistaken,” the woman said. “Right now I’m extremely scared and nervous and embarrassed.”

Regarding the physical exam, LaBossiere suggested Bissonnette never removed and re-inserted his fingers but readjusted them as he checked one side of her pelvis and then the other.

As for Bissonnette’s state of arousal, LaBossiere said the woman described his pants as being pleated. By that nature, they are baggier in front, LaBossiere said.

She asked if the woman happened to glance at Bissonnette’s groin prior to seeing the erection, in case the pants just look that way. 

The woman said she had not noticed them beforehand. And she could not say, in response to another suggestion from LaBossiere, whether Bissonnette perhaps had something in his pocket.

After framing the woman’s testimony as problematic, LaBossiere cited a quote the woman made to police in 2020, when she said “I’m not the greatest on information.”

Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. ​​If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.