Outside Charles Duncan's medical practice, in Fonthill, September 2019. VOICE PHOTO

The trial of Charles Duncan, the former family doctor charged with multiple counts of sexual assault in the fall of 2019, is finally underway in a St. Catharines courtroom.

Duncan, who practiced family medicine in Pelham for decades, resigned from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario in October of 2019, after the college commenced an investigation into allegations against him of professional misconduct and incompetence. Duncan agreed to never reapply for registration as a physician in Ontario or any other jurisdiction.

After an alleged sexual assault victim of Duncan’s told her story to the Voice in the fall of 2019, several other women came forward with similar allegations. Duncan formally charged and arrested in November 2019.

The Crown is pursuing charges related to five females, and Niagara Regional Police have laid a total of seven charges of sexual assault and one of sexual exploitation. The women involved were aged 16 to 64 at the time of the alleged incidents.

Duncan, along with his attorneys Seth Weinstein and Jill Makepeace, was present in person in court, with Justice Deborah Calderwood presiding. Assistant Crown Attorney Todd Morris represented the prosecution. Calderwood advised the court that certain details of the charges against Duncan were subject to a publication ban, including the identities of the five women who have agreed to testify.

It is uncertain whether Duncan himself will take the stand in the predicted 12-day trial.

Arraignment occurred last Monday, at which time the court clerk read the seven charges aloud. Duncan responded in a strong, clear voice, “not guilty,” to each charge.

The first witness, age 66, was a patient of Dr. Duncan’s from June of 1974, when she was 19, until November of 2000. She testified that she was always alone with Duncan during her medical appointments.

In 1996, at an appointment with Duncan regarding a test for scoliosis in her back, he asked her to bend over and touch her toes. She said that she felt Duncan press his body up behind her for five or ten seconds, which made for “uncomfortable moments. I was rattled. I knew it was inappropriate, but did not know how to process it,” she responded, when questioned by the prosecutor.

The witness said Duncan made inappropriate comments at a physical assessment done in 1998, complimenting her appearance and, during completion of a sheet of form questions, asked “sex?” and responded himself, “Yes, sexy.”

The woman said she had breast examinations with Duncan once or twice a year while in his care, but that mammograms were done at the hospital. She said he had a habit of undressing her for examinations, personally removing her blouse and bra. She said she felt awkward and uncomfortable, but did not resist.

“He was very adept at undressing,” she noted.

I was flustered, gobsmacked. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I knew I’d never go back.

On November 27, 2000, the witness said she had a cough, sinus issues, and chest congestion, and made an appointment to see Duncan that day at 6 PM. Duncan suggested she have a flu shot, she said, even though the woman did not routinely get such an injection. Duncan unbuttoned her cardigan, she said, and pulled it down her arm to administer the injection.

At this point, the woman said Duncan squeezed her bra and left breast for no reason. She responded, “Hey!” in an angry tone, she said, and left the office promptly.

“I was flustered, gobsmacked. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I knew I’d never go back,” she said.

She broke down crying in her car, and cried again that evening. She reached out to a friend, and sought out counselling from a member of her church. Finally, the woman called the College of Physicians to file a complaint. The College responded that if they received other complaints about Duncan, they would get back to her. The woman contacted the Niagara Regional Police as well.

In January of 2001, the witness received a call from Duncan’s secretary, indicating that Duncan wanted to see her about a mammogram result. She told the secretary she’d never go back to see Duncan, and asked that her medical records be forwarded.

Nearly a decade later, the woman said she saw a Voice article related to accusations against Duncan, which prompted her to take action. She said she had been “waiting years for something like this to come out.”

Her communication with the Voice prompted the newspaper to run an interview with an expert who described why women are hesitant to report the sort of conduct allegedly engaged in by Duncan. The Niagara Police contacted the woman thereafter, and she decided to make a formal statement to the police at that time.