Federal Court approves class-action lawsuit claiming RCMP doctors sexually assaulted recruits

Politics

A Federal Court judge has approved a class-action lawsuit against the federal government alleging the RCMP's physicians sexually assaulted applicants during mandatory physical examinations.

(Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Sylvie Corriveau has spent decades trying to sound the alarm over reports that some of the RCMP's designated doctors have sexually abused patients.

She said she felt a sense of "personal vindication" last week after a Federal Court judge certified a class-action lawsuit in which she is the lead plaintiff. The lawsuit alleges the RCMP's designated physicians sexually assaulted applicants during mandatory physical examinations.

"It's rewarding to be able to move this forward and know that some folks will get resolution," Corriveau said from her home in Fredericton, N.B., where she's living out her retirement.

Justice Ann Marie McDonald issued a written decision late last week certifying the class-action lawsuit, which makes allegations of systemic negligence and breach of duty-of-care against the RCMP. A copy of her decision was made public recently.

Corriveau, who worked as a civilian RCMP employee in the operational communications centre, said she was sexually assaulted by a doctor while applying to become a member of the force back in 1989.

As part of the recruitment process, applicants must undergo a medical examination by a designated physician.

In an affidavit filed as part of the class action certification process, Corriveau said she was sent to a doctor in Toronto who spent a considerable amount of time during her exam pinching her nipples in what he called "tweak tests."

The allegations have not been proven in court.

Sylvie Corriveau, a civilian RCMP employee who is now retired, is the lead plaintiff in the case.(Submitted by Sylvie Corriveau)

"It felt more like a sexual encounter than it did a physical, but all along he kept telling me that he had the last say in whether or not I got this job," she told CBC News on Tuesday.

"I had already quit my job of 11 years and moved myself to Toronto. I needed this job. So I did what he asked me to do."

After joining the force, she said, she heard that other women had similar experiences with the same doctor.

RCMP was aware of allegations, court documents allege

Corriveau said she contacted the RCMP Member Employee Assistance Program (MEAP) to report her experience. In her affidavit, she argues that the RCMP was aware of the assaults, failed to act on that knowledge, actively interfered with investigations, covered up complaints and condoned the behaviour.

"We did really fight hard to try and stop this doctor and to prevent further abuse or neglect," she said.

Eventually, nearly 30 women came forward alleging sexual assaults during their exams — but in 2019, sex crimes investigators with the Toronto Police Service said there were "no grounds" to lay criminal charges.

Police said that investigators reviewed medical standards at the time and concluded there was a lack of evidence "to prove there was a sexual purpose" to the doctor's exams.

The class action certification motion also notes that Halifax Police opened an investigation looking into allegations that another RCMP-designated doctor sexually assaulted applicants over a period of roughly 22 years. Police in that city also did not lay charges.

McDonald's decision looked not at the evidence or facts in the case, but at whether it met the standard to be a class-action lawsuit.

The office of the Attorney General of Canada referred inquiries about a possible settlement to the RCMP. An RCMP spokesperson said one of the two physicians mentioned in the class action certification motion is now dead, and the other is no longer employed by the RCMP.

"The RCMP takes all allegations of sexual assault, violence, and inappropriate behaviour seriously," said Robin Percival.

"Canada consented to the certification of the common issues relating to negligence. The litigation is at a procedural stage, and the nature of the agreement on the consent order reflects a procedural rather than substantive agreement between the parties."

'The trauma was so deep'

Megan McPhee of Kim Spencer McPhee Barristers — the law firm representing Corriveau as the lead plaintiff — said hundreds of men and women have come forward so far.

She said many of the applicants were either fresh out of high school or in their early 20s when they were assaulted.

"They were being seen by a doctor who had such a high degree of control over them, and kept reminding them of that … then suffered these terrible sexual assaults," she said.

McPhee said the doctors were so well known that a whisper network emerged within the RCMP warning young recruits about "Dr. Tweakers" and "Dr. Fingers".

"And yet young men and women continued to be sent to them," she said. "And some of them were so deeply affected they ultimately didn't end up joining the RCMP, the trauma was so deep."

McPhee said it's too early to discuss compensation.

"We're happy to see this certified, we're happy to see this is going ahead," she said. "We encourage any individual who wants to speak with us to share their stories. We'll keep all of that information confidential."

Former judge urged compensation

This class action would cover people who fell outside of the class definition for the historic Merlo-Davidson settlement, which covered all women who were harassed while working for the RCMP during and after September 1974.

The independent assessor in that case, retired Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache, said he was shocked by the stories he heard about women suffering abuse at the hands of the RCMP's sanctioned doctors.

"Vulnerable women, applying to the RCMP, their dream career, were subjected to 'prostate' rectal exams; their breasts were felt in a lingering and unprofessional manner; they were subjected to unnecessary and gratuitous vaginal 'exams,'" he wrote in his final report, released in November.

"I was also told that the conduct of these doctors was known to other members of the RCMP. Indeed, one of the doctors was given the nickname Dr. Fingers by both male and female members. More than one claimant remembered being warned about the medical examination by others who had been through it.

"It is incomprehensible to me that such conduct could be tolerated."

Because many of these women were not members of the RCMP at the time of their examinations, they were not eligible to join the Merlo-Davidson lawsuit.

"I strongly recommend that the RCMP provide compensation to these women," wrote Bastarache.

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