Trial for Manitoba doctor charged with 22 counts of sex assault begins with defence trying to end it

The trial for Arcel Bissonnette, a Manitoba doctor charged with 22 counts of sexual assault against female patients over the course of 13 years, began Monday with the defence immediately trying to get the trial adjourned.

Arcel Bissonnette's defence team seeks adjournment on 1st day of planned 4-week trial

Doctor with stethoscope.
Arcel Bissonnette was initially charged in 2020 with six counts of sexual assault, which allegedly took place between 2004 and 2017. He has pleaded not guilty to the 22 charges he now faces. (Kamon_Wongnon/Shutterstock)

The trial for a Manitoba doctor charged with 22 counts of sexual assault against female patients over the course of 13 years began Monday with the defence immediately trying to get it adjourned.

Arcel Bissonnette was initially charged in 2020 with six counts of sexual assault, which prosecutors allege took place between 2004 and 2017. After those charges were announced, more complainants came forward, and 16 more counts were added in October 2021.

Bissonnette worked at the hospital and medical centre in the town of Ste. Anne, about 40 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba barred him from practising medicine when the initial criminal charges against him came to light.

But it was already aware of at least one complaint against Bissonnette prior to that, which led to him being put under restrictions that required him to have a female chaperone in the room for some exams beginning in 2019.

On Monday, Bissonnette sat in the front row of a courtroom in Winnipeg's Court of King's bench, just behind his three-member defence team — Marty Minuk, Josh Weinstein and Lisa LaBossiere — taking notes on a clipboard as his lawyers threatened to seek an adjournment.

LaBossiere told Justice Anne Turner, who is presiding over the judge-only trial, there were significant concerns over the integrity of the investigation done by the Sainte-Anne Police Service — which serves the community of Ste. Anne — and specifically lead investigator Jacqueline Lawford.

Missing materials: defence

As the defence team was putting its case together months ago, it was told it had all of the notes, emails and other documents gathered by Lawford, said LaBossiere.

Instead, the team says it has been finding large gaps in reports, and last month learned Lawford's notebooks are nowhere to be found, the defence lawyer said. 

Those are key pieces of evidence that should detail all of the steps taken by Lawford during the investigation, said LaBossiere.

None are in possession of Ste. Anne's police service, according to the custodian in charge of exhibits there, LaBossiere told Justice Turner.

"The case keeps changing. That puts us as a disadvantage," LaBossiere said.

"[That] should cause the court significant concern. This is a very significant trial."

Lead investigator testifies

Lawford testified briefly on Monday morning, before LaBossiere first raised the spectre of a full adjournment.

She was the first of 10 witnesses the Crown is expected to call during the trial, which is slated for four weeks.

Lawford led the investigation for nearly two years before she was seconded to work temporarily for another police department.

That secondment eventually led to a permanent job, so all the notebooks detailing the Bissonnette investigation were put into a filing cabinet, Lawford testified, adding she has no idea where they are now.

Court also heard she deleted her user account and email after returning to the Sainte-Anne Police Service one night.

During questioning by Crown prosecutor Paul Girdlestone, Lawford said that account and email were personal, and "nothing to do with the investigation or anything like that."

Asked by Girdlestone why she went in when the police station was closed, Lawford argued it doesn't ever really close.

Lawford was shown a collection of photocopied materials and asked if it was everything connected to the case that she could recall. She told Girdlestone it appeared some things were missing.

Lawford was excused from the courtroom without being cross-examined. That's when LaBossiere told Turner the defence team's case is being thrown into flux as "new things are always arising — even today."

Monday was the first time Lawford admitted the package of photocopied materials does not contain everything, LaBossiere said.

"We were led to believe something which turned out to not be true."

Adjourned until Tuesday

A deleted email account belonging to Lawford was eventually retrieved, but LaBossiere believes there were two personal accounts being used. There could be information on that other account, she argued.

LaBossiere insisted there are meetings and other correspondence during Lawford's investigation for which no documentation has been provided.

Although Lawford was involved in the investigation from August 2017 until April 2019, only fragments of disclosure from October 2018 until April 2019 exist, LaBossiere said.

LaBossiere said she would want to order an independent investigation into the handling of things at the Sainte-Anne Police Service if she could, but she does not have that power.

What she can do is seek an adjournment until those issues can be resolved, she said.

Girdlestone argued against the adjournment, saying many of the things the defence is questioning might come forward through other witnesses. He also said if he knew what exactly the defence wanted, he might be able to provide it.

Turner directed Bissonnette's team to give Girdlestone a list and adjourned the trial until Tuesday morning before making any decision on further delays.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.