A medical exam at RCMP headquarters in Toronto is all that stood between 20-year-old Helen Henderson and a promotion within the Mounties in February 1987.
But as the office door closed, Henderson said terror set in, as the RCMP’s doctor began rubbing up against her, pinching her nipples and proceeding with an invasive vaginal exam.
“There was no way out,” Henderson told CBC News, recalling the appointment 30 years later. “There [were] no gloves. There was no handwashing. He was taking advantage of a young girl who didn’t know any better. He was getting off personally.”
Henderson said she “basically ran out of the office, knowing that something really wrong happened there.”
The doctor, John A. Macdougall, examined hundreds of new recruits to Canada’s national police force, and had the power to shut down their careers.
For two years, Henderson felt haunted and alone — until a chance meeting with Sylvie Corriveau and Vicki Gravelle, two other new recruits who alleged they had also been sexually assaulted by Macdougall.
Henderson, Corriveau and Gravelle vowed to stop him. They complained to RCMP bosses, Toronto police and medical regulators. But their faith in authority was shattered, they say, when the entire affair was “swept under the carpet.”
For nearly three decades, nothing happened. But in response to pressure from the three women, as well as headlines about the #MeToo movement, Toronto police reopened their investigation in 2018, and have since interviewed dozens of additional complainants.
Yet there has been no discernible progress, and the three women are growing impatient.
On Friday, Corriveau filed a new $135-million class action suit against the federal government on behalf of anyone victimized by abusive doctors at the RCMP — including Macdougall, but also others, including one in Halifax.
Henderson, Corriveau and Gravelle are also going public for the first time by telling their story to the CBC.
“I want justice. I want him to be charged,” said Henderson. “I want him to be shamed in front of his family, his peers, his colleagues. We never thought we would be here today, but for whatever has happened with the #MeToo movement. It’s time.”
But time for justice is running out. That’s because Macdougall, who is in his mid-80s, is on his deathbed, no longer of sound mind.
After her traumatic medical exam in 1987, Helen Henderson would often pass Macdougall in the hallways of the RCMP building in Toronto. It distressed her so much that she demanded a transfer.
It was at her new post at the RCMP’s Toronto airport detachment that she met Sylvie Corriveau and Vicki Gravelle. It was the fall of 1989, and the two recruits had been on the job for just a week or two. The trio got to talking, and it turned out they had all endured nearly identical, invasive medical exams from Macdougall, which were supposed to determine their fitness for duty.
The trio dubbed him “Dr. Tweakers,” recounting how Macdougall spent considerable time probing their breasts and pinching their nipples in what he called “tweak tests.” They also recalled him caressing their legs and backs, and conducting vaginal exams that left them feeling violated.
“This entire encounter felt more like a sexual encounter than a medical encounter,” Corriveau told CBC News, explaining she worked as a paramedic before being hired by the RCMP.
“He’s rubbing my legs up and down. He commented on how soft they were,” she said. “I’m thinking, You’re touching me. You’ve not washed your hands. You don’t have gloves. You’re into my private parts. It’s something that I’ve never seen and it’s completely wrong. I was flabbergasted.”
Gravelle recalled a similar exam, in which Macdougall pressed up against her naked body during a test he assured her was to measure her spine.
“I just have a gown on and he stands directly behind me, with his body touching right up against me, and [asks me] to bend over, and starts feeling every little notch in my spine. [He] takes hold of my hips, turns them, wiggles them.”
Gravelle said when Macdougall began a vaginal exam, she turned numb.
“I’m questioning him along the way, trying to get him to stop, or to say, ‘Why are you doing this? Because I have a gynecologist I see that has done these examinations [already]. You can have the paperwork.'”
Corriveau said Macdougall was “using his authority for his sexual gratification,” and emphasized during the exam that he had “the last say in whether or not … you get this job.”
Watch | Sylvie Corriveau describes the moment she says she concluded Macdougall was abusing his authority:
Macdougall retired in 2001 and now lives in a retirement residence west of Toronto. According to his lawyer, he has dementia, suffered near-fatal pneumonia last month and is currently living with around-the clock care.
A lawyer for Macdougall and his family declined CBC’s requests for comment.
When the three women gave detailed statements to Toronto police in November of 1989, they expected to be taken seriously. But instead of any follow-up from the Toronto force, their male bosses at the RCMP stepped in a month later and announced there was no basis for any criminal charges, and that Macdougall would be dealt with internally.
“The practices carried out by the medical examiner fall within policy guidelines of the RCMP,” an RCMP Superintendent wrote to the three women.
Nonetheless, the Superintendent promised a full internal investigation. That was four days before Christmas. By late January, RCMP commanders closed the file, never having spoken to the women, according to the trio.
“Absolutely, they covered it up,” Henderson said. She was so disgusted that within two years, she quit the RCMP.
CBC was unable to reach those senior RCMP officers.
The investigation may have been shut down, but RCMP bosses were still concerned enough to issue a directive to all medical staff in January 1990.
CBC News has obtained that memo. It set out rules for proper breast exams, ordered a halt to all internal exams and told staff doctors to instead rely on medical reports from patients’ gynecologists.
‘He got extremely mad’
The RCMP kept Macdougall on the job, where he appears to have ignored the new directives.
One alleged victim, Brenda Di iorio, said her male supervisor cautioned her to be on guard when she reported to Macdougall for a simple eye exam in the summer of 1990. When Di iorio arrived, she said Macdougall instructed her to remove all of her clothing.
When she refused, Di iorio said Macdougall flew into a rage, throwing a stethoscope at her and swiping the papers from his desk.
“He got extremely mad,” Di iorio said. “He was saying to me, like, ‘Who do you think you are? You don’t undermine me! I could have your career.'”
Di iorio said she ran from the office in tears, immediately reporting it to her direct supervisor, who alerted senior police leaders.
Around the same time, 22-year-old Laurel Hodder, a new recruit, arrived on Macdougall’s doorstep armed with medical records from her personal doctor. She said Macdougall insisted she undergo a vaginal exam, during which, she alleges, he sexually assaulted her.
“I felt very disgusted,” Hodder said. The exam “was something I needed to have done, or I assumed that I needed to have done in order to get the job. I just was creeped out by it, but I kept quiet.”
Hodder worked for the Mounties for almost three decades, but took early retirement last year after learning, after all these years, that RCMP brass had known of previous complaints against Macdougall, and still sent her to him in the summer of 1990.
“Nobody warned me. They sent me there to this monster,” she said.
Hodder filed a lawsuit against Macdougall and the federal government in July 2018, accusing the RCMP of failing to protect her from a known threat.
Case was ‘withdrawn’
Back in 1990, the women who filed the original complaint turned to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. Believing the RCMP were actively suppressing any real investigation, Henderson, Corriveau and Gravelle hoped Ontario’s medical regulator would strip Macdougall of his doctor’s licence.
The CPSO investigated and asked Macdougall to respond to the allegations. In a detailed defence obtained by CBC News, Macdougall wrote that during exams on recruits, he taught what he called proper “breast self-examination technique.”
“I choose to introduce instruction at this medical opportunity because I have the time, because my readings in medical publications indicate poor attention paid by professionals to this important topic,” Macdougall wrote in his seven-page response.
He also wrote that he was “deeply disappointed that the applicants, subject of this investigation, have felt in any way mistreated.”
Macdougall was silent, however, on the allegations he’d sexually assaulted them by stroking their legs, rubbed against them or conducted unnecessary vaginal exams with ungloved hands.
The CPSO ordered Macdougall to appear at a formal disciplinary hearing in June 1992, but at the last minute, the case was mysteriously “withdrawn.”
CBC News has obtained an internal CPSO letter showing the college negotiated some sort of “final agreement” with the doctor. But large portions of the record are redacted, and the college will not discuss what happened.
That letter between a CPSO prosecutor and a director at the college states the three women became scared and were no longer willing to testify against Macdougall, making a hearing impossible. That prosecutor, who is now retired, told CBC News she has no memory of the case. But after reviewing her letter, she said it appears the women got “cold feet.”
Henderson, Corriveau and Gravelle say they never spoke to any prosecutor, and certainly never backed down.
“This never happened! No one remembers it this way,” said Corriveau.
The CPSO declined to answer questions about what “final agreement” was reached in the case.
‘I blame everyone’
Macdougall left the RCMP in 1992, around the time the CPSO case was dropped.
He continued to practise as a doctor, holding a licence until 2001. He also worked for several years as a staff physician at Ontario Hydro.
Henderson feels “defeated” and “deflated” by the current state of Macdougall’s health.
“It makes it feel it’s almost too late as far as him being punished for what he did,” Henderson said. Even so, she said “it’s important that it’s still revealed. Whether it hits him, whether he understands what’s happening, there’s still a really huge part of this story that needs to be revealed: accountability.”
Toronto Police won’t discuss the current investigation into Macdougall or comment on whether they intend to lay charges. They did, however, say about 30 complainants have come forward since they reopened the case in early 2018.
The RCMP declined to comment on their handling of the case, citing the renewed police investigation.
The reason Corriveau filed a class action suit against the federal government last week is that she and Gravelle did not qualify for compensation under a previous RCMP sexual abuse settlement because they weren’t technically RCMP employees at the time of their exams.
Helen Henderson did qualify for compensation and received a cheque last month. The difference between her and the other two women is that Henderson was already employed by the RCMP and was applying for a promotion when she encountered MacDougall.
The new lawsuit takes aim at any abusive RCMP doctor, and specifically cites Macdougall as well as Douglas Campbell, a former RCMP doctor in Halifax accused of abusing 140 women and men while working for the Mounties.
Three decades later, Corriveau still marvels at the lack of accountability across multiple agencies.
“I blame everyone: Toronto police, the RCMP and the College of Physicians,” said Corriveau. “Their lack of action … resulted in more females being sexually assaulted. They could have stopped this and they failed to do so.”
“I think that we need to complete the circle and finish what we started 30 years ago.”
Additional reporting by Laura Clementson