Jane went to see Dr. Arcel Bissonnette for help with a nagging stomach problem, but instead left feeling violated after he allegedly subjected her to invasive examinations she said had no connection to her medical issue.
Jane, not her real name, is one of 21 women who allege Bissonnette sexually assaulted them during medical examinations at the Ste. Anne Hospital and the Seine Medical Centre between 2001 and 2018.
"I was having some stomach problems and I didn’t have a family doctor and there were some people seeing him already that I knew," said Jane, who started seeing Bissonnette in 2016.
"From the very get-go, I got a physical — which I thought was normal, I hadn’t seen a doctor in couple of years — but every single time I went to the doctor’s office for anything, I got a physical exam," said Jane, who is in her mid-20s. "If I would get results for blood work, I would still get a physical afterwards… I would get a vaginal and anal exam every single time I would see him."
Jane said she went to the physician more than a dozen times in a year and a half. She was so desperate for relief, she didn’t start to feel something was wrong until about a year after she started seeing him.
"By the 10th or 11th visit, I started feeling uncomfortable. I would be emotional laying on the table because I felt like it was wrong… but I was still dealing with the stomach problem so obviously, I had to keep seeing a doctor to find answers."
On one of her first visits, Jane alleged, Bissonnette had her strip naked so he could examine her spine for scoliosis.
"That was pretty strange… but I didn’t think anything of it. I hadn’t seen a doctor in a while."
Jane’s experience "would definitely raise alarms," said Kemlin Nembhard, executive director of the Women’s Health Clinic.
"It’s important to realize that doctors are in a position of power on a lot of levels when they are seeing clients," Nembhard said. "It is our inclination to trust doctors, but I think even with that we should also feel comfortable asking questions.
"If you have a health-care professional you don’t feel comfortable asking questions of, whether it’s because of what you believe or what they believe or their behaviour toward you, it may be time to find another health-care professional."
Jane came forward after seeing news reports of Bissonnette’s arrest in November 2020 for allegedly assaulting six patients.
"I just was concerned if there were any other young girls like me who didn’t know what was going on," she said. "I figured the more people who spoke up about it, the better."
Jane said the experience has made her distrust doctors.
"It’s difficult to find another doctor since then because I don’t have a lot of trust for doctors after that," she said. "There’s a huge lack of women doctors in Winnipeg. It’s very hard to find a woman doctor."
Shannon, not her real name, saw Bissonnette once in the early 2000s when her regular doctor wasn’t available.
Shannon didn’t want to discuss the specifics of her experience, fearing it might jeopardize the case against Bissonnette, but said she had been conflicted for years over whether the doctor's actions amounted to assault.
"If he had pulled his penis out and kissed me, it would be like super clear it was a sexual assault. This wasn’t as clear," she said. "I walked out disgusted and emotional, but I would not have walked out saying he sexually assaulted me. It was more like ‘Boy, that was the weirdest exam I ever had.’"
Shannon, who is in her 40s, said news that other patients had accused Bissonnette of assaulting them convinced her she should report her experience to police.
"I was raised in a household where women had to remain quiet and not say much, and doctors are high authority just (like) priests and the Pope," she said. "You kind of feel like your word isn’t worth much… You push it to the back of your mind, stuff it down and never deal with it."
Bissonette, 62, was arrested a year ago for allegedly assaulting six patients. He was rearrested last month during a Steinbach court appearance, accused of assaulting 15 more patients.
Bissonnette, who had practised medicine in Manitoba since 1990, has been released on bail on the condition he surrender his passport and not move from his Ste. Anne home without court permission.
In January 2019, nearly a year before Bissonnette's first arrest, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba prohibited him from conducting breast or pelvic exams without a chaperone.
Bissonnette’s next court date is Nov. 18 in Steinbach.
Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.