The nurse imposter

Brigitte Cleroux faked her credentials and treated hundreds of patients across Canada. Why did no one stop her?

Content image

After struggling with painful endometriosis for much of her life, Kayla was scheduled for surgery to remove endometrial tissue at BC Women’s Hospital in Vancouver in May of 2021. (Kayla is not her real name; I agreed to use pseudonyms for her and some other sources in this story to protect their privacy.) The attending nurse was a woman named Melanie. She was around 50, loud and boisterous, with clumpy mascara and frizzy black hair. Wearing a hospital gown, an already-anxious Kayla was disturbed when Melanie couldn’t insert an IV. The nurse tried and failed repeatedly, moving the needle around on Kayla’s arm. Eventually, she had to call a colleague over to help.

During one of Melanie’s attempts, Kayla turned and then felt her arm brush the nurse’s breast. She quickly stammered an apology. Melanie let out a booming laugh. She grabbed Kayla’s hand and used it to cup the breast Kayla had inadvertently grazed. Kayla was shocked. “I figured she didn’t have the best bedside manner,” she says.

Stranger still, Kayla was unconscious for 12 hours following the procedure, and then slept for another 18 after she got home. She was covered in large marks and bruises—something the hospital has not been able to explain.

Her disconcerting experiences took on new meaning several months later, when she received a letter from the Provincial Health Services Authority, or PHSA, dated November 26, 2021. “We are writing today to inform you that we recently learned an individual who had been hired to provide perioperative nursing care at BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre’s Gynecology Surgical Program did not have a valid licence with the B.C. College of Nurses and Midwives,” wrote Cheryl Davies, CEO of BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre. (When I requested an interview with Davies, a representative for BC Women’s Hospital declined on her behalf.) “This individual is no longer employed in the Gynecological Surgical Program,” the letter continued, “and BC Women’s/PHSA is reviewing this matter comprehensively to determine how it occurred, any internal processes that may have contributed, and potential impact to patients.” The letter notes that Vancouver police were conducting an investigation, and concludes with an apology for any distress the letter might have caused.

MORE: Forgiving Jaskirat Sidhu

The letter did cause distress. Kayla’s anxiety went into high gear, and she immediately did a Google search, turning up a picture of the nurse who’d used Kayla’s hand to cup her breast. “I was like, okay, that makes sense,” says Kayla. She was more alarmed when she received her medical records and, in reviewing them with her primary physician, discovered she had been administered a bizarre cocktail of drugs, including fentanyl. “My doctor told me I absolutely should not have been given a lot of the things the nurse gave me,” says Kayla. “It’s a gynecological thing; you’re in stirrups and you’re sedated. You’re supposed to have people you can trust to take care of you.” For Kayla, the sense of violation was immediate and intense. “I kind of spiralled,” she says. She couldn’t stop thinking about what the fake nurse might have done to her while she was unconscious.

The woman who treated Kayla at BC Women’s Hospital went by many names over the years, including Brigitte Marier, Brigitte Fournier, Bridget Clairemont, Melanie Cleroux, Melanie Gauthier, Melanie Thompson and Melanie Smith. Her real name is Brigitte Cleroux.

In a mugshot taken last summer in Ottawa, Cleroux appears under bad lighting with her thick black hair pulled back, her eyebrows unevenly pencilled in, the corners of her mouth turned down and her eyes crowded by enormous fake eyelashes. She has the dejected look of someone who knows the jig is finally up. For 30 years, Cleroux had been criss-crossing the country in a game of identity-shifting catch-me-if-you-can, slipping through the cracks of provincial regulatory bodies and leaving behind a long rap sheet, frustrated victims and falsified documents that consistently fooled employers.

Cleroux started getting into trouble when she was still a teenager in Gatineau, Quebec. Her mother, who she was close with, always bailed her out; she never really knew her father. Cleroux’s lawyer declined an interview request on her behalf, but a family friend, who I’ll call Tanya, agreed to speak with me on the condition of anonymity. Tanya told me Cleroux has a good heart and can be kind to those she cares about. “She has had a problem with fraud ever since she was young,” Tanya says. According to CBC reports, Cleroux was first charged with impersonation and forgery in 1991 at the age of 19; she pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one month in prison. Tanya says Cleroux spent most of the next decade working as an exotic dancer and engaging in credit card and cheque fraud. She also spent some time in Florida.

By 2001, Cleroux was living in Colorado, where she attended nursing school for two years. “She always had a passion for nursing but never finished school,” Tanya says. “Easy way out, I guess.” Cleroux told people she was forced out of her nursing program when it was discovered she had a criminal record. Her career aspirations dashed, she tried to build a life. She fell in love and was soon pregnant. And, despite her lack of credentials, she got a job as a nurse in Colorado Springs, but was busted and subsequently charged with forgery and impersonation; she appears to have skipped out on those charges. She was also wanted on charges in Florida. As of 2010, Cleroux still had outstanding warrants in both states for fraud, theft, using a false ID, forgery and a host of other charges. Florida’s department of corrections lists 11 aliases for Cleroux.

Cleroux fled from the U.S. back to Canada, where she gave birth to a daughter in March of 2002. In Rockland, Ontario, she married a man named Mario Marier. They seemed happy. Tanya says Marier was unaware of Cleroux’s past. Still unlicensed, Cleroux began working as a nurse at a small Ontario hospital. Once again, she was arrested. This time she was charged with falsifying a legitimate nurse’s credentials and sentenced to six months in prison followed by two years’ probation. She was fined $60,000.

At Philemon Wright High School in Gatineau, 2006 was a strange year. After a revolving door of French teachers, Madame Marier arrived in October and immediately made an impression on her young charges—but not in a good way. They had no idea that Madame Marier was Brigitte Cleroux, and that she was not qualified to teach high school French or anything else.

One student I interviewed—I’ll call her Rachel—was in Grade 10 that year. She remembers Cleroux for her heavy makeup, tight jeans and low-cut leopard-print tops. She says Cleroux would tell students stories about parties she attended on the weekend and intimated that she had both a husband and a boyfriend. As for her work, she didn’t seem to know what she was doing, teaching her students the kind of simplistic verb conjugation they had already covered in grade school. But one lesson stood out: movie day. “The only way I can describe the film is as a porn,” says Rachel. “It was a literal orgy.” It wasn’t even in French.

READ: Why is Pierre Poilievre so angry?

“We were confused and just kept looking at each other, but we were awkward high school students and none of us really knew what to do,” says Rachel. “She was laughing at all of us. She was like, ‘Why are you so uncomfortable? I know you’re all having sex.’ Most of us were like, please let me die in this chair.” Rachel recalls one student even left the room to look for another teacher.

A former student named Cameron Mousseau remembers the cruelty Cleroux inflicted on him and his friends as she tried to curry favour with the more popular students. “She noticed the weaker kids in the class and picked on them,” he says. “She was horrible to me.”

Mousseau was bullied in high school and says Cleroux encouraged it. “She was condescending and mean, a nasty person. It made things difficult, like I had a target on my back,” he says. She accused Mousseau of plagiarism and teased him about his weight. Then, one day in December, she was just gone, and no one knew what had happened to her. In Mousseau’s yearbook, Madame Marier’s name is listed but there’s no picture; in the faculty photo, she’s simply marked as “missing.”

Mike Dubeau, director general of the Western Québec School Board, wasn’t in his current position when Cleroux was hired, but he did inherit a slim personnel file that includes a falsified teaching certificate and CV. While Dubeau can’t speak to hiring practices in 2006, he says it is now standard when hiring new teachers to perform criminal background checks and send any certifications to the Ministry of Education for confirmation. “I’m confident this would be picked up immediately within our present system,” he says.

At some point after leaving the Gatineau school, Cleroux picked up and moved again—this time to Calgary. She followed Joele Pharand Fournier, a friend and neighbour from the Ottawa area. It was, for a while, a cozy arrangement, with the two families—four adults and four kids, including Cleroux’s husband and five-year-old daughter—sharing a rental house. Fournier told the Calgary Herald that Cleroux was a caring friend, someone who would babysit and help make ends meet, someone who was always there. And Cleroux was attentive, too. She showed particular interest in Fournier’s work as a nurse, asking a lot of questions and posing hypotheticals. “She would tell me things and then just double-check everything by me to make sure she was right,” Fournier said.

Fournier and her family moved back to Ontario in 2008, and Cleroux resumed her old habits of falsifying documents, sometimes using the names of convenient strangers and sometimes exploiting her relationships. She used a false name to create an Alberta identification card and then forged a nurse’s permit. Her forgeries were good enough to land her a nursing job at Calgary’s Properties Medical Clinic in 2008, but a colleague there became suspicious of her and she was laid off after two months. She then ran into trouble when facial recognition software pinged a problem with her ID. She was charged with defrauding Service Alberta, as well as forging a nurse’s permit. The identity Cleroux had assumed? Her dear friend, Joele Pharand Fournier.

Cleroux was released on bail, but when she failed to show up for a court appearance, a warrant was issued for her arrest. That triggered a public safety alert from the College and Association of Registered Nurses of Alberta in July 2010, which noted that Cleroux had engaged in acts “considered dangerous,” including administering injections. She was quickly arrested in Ontario and sent back to Alberta, where she eventually admitted to forging documents, including references.

Cleroux was already two decades into a life of pervasive dishonesty, one that had repeatedly resulted in punishment and humiliation. And yet she continued along her path, perpetually moving on to the next con. She had been both charged and sanctioned, but nothing seemed to stop her.

Why did she keep going? Perhaps her trajectory seemed like the path of least resistance; it might be easier to continue with an old habit than work on establishing new ones. Maybe there was a thrill for her in pulling a fast one on the unsuspecting—what psychiatrists call the “duping delight.” N.G. Berrill, executive director of the New York Center for Neuropsychology and Forensic Behavioral Science, studies the behaviour of imposters. “There’s a thrill in breaking rules and manipulating others that gives them a sense of power,” Berrill says. He speculates that Cleroux’s track record has likely emboldened her. “She’s been doing this for 30 years and she’s only been to court a handful of times. So she’s probably been gratified more often than she’s been punished.”

In the summer of 2013, when Lucas Nault was looking for a new stylist for his salon in Ottawa, a woman named Bridget Clairemont applied for the position. Her resumé looked good. She said she had owned salons in Edmonton and won multiple awards, and she had all the requisite licensing documentation. Bridget Clairemont was, of course, Brigitte Cleroux.
While many people who have been conned by Cleroux describe her as arrogant, rude and outrageous, Nault’s experience is a testament to her shapeshifting abilities. He found Cleroux pleasant. She had a sense of humour and a sweetness—shaded by some rough edges—that made her a good fit for the small salon. She talked about her young daughter and how hard it was to make ends meet. Nault’s mother had cancer and Cleroux was gentle with him when he confided in her. And she was also knowledgeable about the trade. “She pulled out some very complicated hair colours,” he says.

Looking back now, Nault realizes there were some signs of her deception. Cleroux arrived with her own styling supplies, but she lacked knowledge about mixing ratios for hair colour and how to use certain tools. “She asked odd questions every so often that should have been a no-brainer for someone with that much experience,” says Nault. “But there was never a complaint, never an issue. Every client liked her hair.”

RELATED: A developer is building condos in a Kelowna millionaire’s front yard. Let the battle begin.

About three months into Cleroux’s employment, Nault received an email from an anonymous source. It also included a rap sheet and mugshot of Cleroux, indicating she had been jailed for impersonating a nurse and a teacher. It included links to testimonials from shocked nurses who had worked with Cleroux.

Nault was conflicted. He wanted to give Cleroux the benefit of the doubt, and he could understand why someone might try to cover up an off-colour past to avoid being pigeonholed. “Just because someone’s been in jail doesn’t mean they’re a bad person,” he says. “I wanted to have an open, real conversation with her.” He invited Cleroux for coffee at the café next to the salon.

As Cleroux sat across the table, Nault slid the printed-out email toward her. He told her he wasn’t firing her and that he was willing to work things out. Cleroux burst into tears. “She was like, ‘No, I can’t do this anymore,’ ” says Nault. “ ‘I’m really sorry,’ she said, ‘but none of this is true.’ ” She got up from the table and walked away forever, leaving behind hundreds of dollars’ worth of equipment, including flat irons, scissors and a blow dryer. Nault was stunned. “I was like, well, that was weird,” he says. It was the last he heard of Cleroux. He now wonders if she learned to cut and colour hair when she was in prison.

A decade later, Nault remains somewhat awed by Cleroux’s ability to deceive. “She aced her interview with me and I’m sure she aced it with others, too,” says Nault. “I know it’s not right, but I wonder if she had wanted these things for herself and she just wasn’t in the financial situation to do it. Or maybe she really believes it to the point where it’s true.”

After walking away from Nault in the café that day, Cleroux carried on with her itinerant lifestyle. From 2015 to 2018, she bounced between Ontario and Quebec. By spring 2020, Cleroux had headed west, where she got a job at Royal Arch Masonic Home, a long-term care facility in Vancouver. Rupi Cheema, a registered nurse who worked there at the time, remembers a nurse named Melanie who took constant smoke breaks and had “ridiculously long eyelashes.” She had a superior attitude, repeatedly referencing her impressive credentials, including her education in the U.S. and work in both long-term care and the ICU. “That seemed really important for her to communicate,” says Cheema. Cleroux, she recalls, had the attitude of “I can do whatever I want.”

Cleroux’s nursing didn’t raise any red flags. She appeared to have some familiarity with palliative care, checking vital signs and administering medication. Cheema says she never suspected that this was a person pretending to be a nurse—but not just because Cleroux seemed competent. “I would have thought the employer would have done that, would have looked at her background,” she says.

A representative from Royal Arch told me that Cleroux had been working for a third-party contractor when Royal Arch was informed she was not a registered nurse. The representative says Royal Arch hired an external nurse consultant to conduct an investigation, which ultimately determined there were no incidents involving resident care that violated B.C.’s Community Care and Assisted Living Act, and its Residential Care Regulation, beyond the provision of nursing services by a person who did not hold the required licensed professional qualification. Royal Arch also says recommendations have been sent to a quality assurance committee, which will make changes to prevent a similar occurrence in the future.

In June of 2020, Cleroux moved on to BC Women’s Hospital, where, in July, she accompanied a woman I’ll call Sharon to the operating room for a hysteroscopy and biopsy related to endometriosis. The procedure had to be done under sedation, and Sharon was nervous; she knew she would be awake for the procedure and that it would cause her to bleed. Cleroux, who said her name was Melanie, sat by Sharon as she nervously asked questions. Cleroux kindly tried to put Sharon at ease, telling her not to worry because she had taken additional training in order to administer sedation.

As soon as the procedure started, Sharon felt like something was very wrong. It was not simply an unpleasant feeling, as the nurse had promised, but an intense biting pain—suggesting to Sharon that she had not been properly anaesthetized. “I was in tears, and I looked at her and she just looked right back at me,” says Sharon. After the procedure, Sharon was wheeled back to recover in the day surgery area, but Melanie didn’t give her any sanitary items and Sharon was soon sitting in her own blood. She explained the situation to another nurse, who appeared shocked. “I went home and said to my husband, ‘I really don’t think my pain was well managed today.’ And to be sent back to just bleed on myself—there’s a loss of dignity associated with that.”

By spring of 2021, the hospital somehow realized Cleroux was a fraud. Her employment there triggered another public safety alert in June of 2021, this time by the British Columbia College of Nurses and Midwives. It warned that Melanie Smith, who also used the names Melanie Thompson and Melanie Cleroux, was not and had never been entitled to practise as a nurse in B.C.

And yet, even after the alert, Cleroux soon found other nursing jobs. She moved back to Ottawa, where she again used the name Melanie Smith. She forged an impressive resumé, gaining employment at a fertility clinic and a dental surgery clinic. At the fertility clinic, Cleroux often monitored blood pressure and heart rates. She was present during egg retrievals and administered fentanyl. In late July of 2021, Cleroux tried multiple times to draw blood from a patient. She was ultimately successful on her final attempt, but the patient described pain and loss of movement in both hands for almost two weeks.
Cleroux’s conduct raised concerns for at least one of her fellow nurses at the fertility clinic, who found Cleroux aggressive and dismissive, a bad fit in an otherwise collegial environment. In early August, a patient at the clinic approached this nurse, shaking and crying after her interaction with Cleroux. She begged to be handled by anyone else. The incident seemed to enrage Cleroux, and she confronted both the nurse and the attending doctor, stating that she was “done with this place.” She then shoved the patient’s chart into the doctor’s hands.

READ: Scenes from the war in Ukraine

The nurse was sufficiently concerned about Cleroux’s lack of professionalism that she decided to file a complaint with the College of Nurses of Ontario. When she searched in the Ontario database, there was no registration for a Melanie Smith in Ottawa. She did a search in British Columbia, where Cleroux had mentioned having previously worked, and the B.C. college alert about an imposter popped up. Less than two weeks later, Cleroux was arrested in Ottawa when she went to pick up her last cheque at the fertility clinic.

In August of 2021, Brigitte Cleroux was charged with impersonating a nurse at both the fertility and dental clinics in Ottawa, as well as assault with a weapon (brandishing a needle) and criminal negligence causing bodily harm. In November, Vancouver police also busted Cleroux, announcing she had used the name of a real nurse while working at BC Women’s Hospital from June of 2020 to June of 2021. She was charged with several offences, including fraud over $5,000 and personation with intent. In January, she pleaded guilty to charges in Ottawa, including one count of assault with a weapon, and several counts of collecting money under false pretense with an intent to defraud. Cleroux is expected to be sentenced in Ottawa in the spring; after that, she will face charges in Vancouver.

Somehow, Cleroux was able to slip past not one, not two, but at least three provincial nursing regulatory systems—and not just once but multiple times. In the aftermath of her arrests, Cleroux’s employers have remained largely silent. When I reached out to the College of Registered Nurses of Alberta, a spokesperson explained that the organization governs health officials who wish to practise under a certain professional designation, and that they have a mechanism for reporting and investigating concerns about practitioners. They stopped short of providing details of any specific investigation into Cleroux.
In Ontario, where Cleroux worked several times as a nurse, a valid certificate of registration from the College of Nurses of Ontario is required of all nurses who wish to perform procedures authorized to nursing in legislation, says Kristi Green, a spokesperson for the college. Green also tells me that employers are expected to cross-reference potential hires with both the college’s Find a Nurse online directory and its online list of unregistered practitioners. (Cleroux—and several of her aliases—appears on this latter list.)

MORE: Emily St. John Mandel can’t stop writing about pandemics

When I reached out to B.C.’s Provincial Health Services Authority for comment, they sent me a boilerplate statement that had been posted online. Referring to Cleroux, the statement says: “This individual has built a career on deception and impersonating licensed professionals. We are using this incident as an opportunity to strengthen system processes to the fullest extent possible.”

In December, a class-action lawsuit was launched against the PHSA regarding the crimes of Brigitte Cleroux. Murphy Battista, a litigation firm with offices in British Columbia and Ontario, alleges that the PHSA was negligent in allowing Cleroux to work at BC Women’s Hospital, and that any nursing services were performed without lawful consent. J. Scott Stanley, the lead lawyer, says his office has already heard from more than 100 women interested in joining the suit, which he estimates is about 10 per cent of the potential class members. Their complaints range from distasteful unprofessionalism to physical harm. According to the civil claim, Cleroux “battered” the members of the class by administering treatments in the absence of lawful consent.

Stanley finds it troubling that, for a full year, Cleroux’s questionable conduct at BC Women’s Hospital didn’t appear to prompt any alarm among hospital staff or management. “I’m very confident this lawsuit will demonstrate that Ms. Cleroux demonstrated an utter lack of competency that should have caused people to review this,” says Stanley. “To me, that’s more concerning than her fraudulently defeating the barriers to acquire the employment.”

Still, he hopes the class action will force the PHSA to assess exactly what went wrong when it hired her in the first place. “Whenever someone presents as a professional, you have to provide proof of certification or licensure,” he says. “You want to see verification documents so you know who they are. And the PHSA just never bothered to get that level of detail.” The claim alleges the PHSA should have known Cleroux was using falsified documents and credentials, which could have been easily discovered if it had confirmed her information with the British Columbia College of Nurses and Midwives.

While systemic failures are being tallied, Cleroux remains in custody in Ottawa, awaiting sentencing. Tanya, her family friend, told me Cleroux’s transgressions have long been a source of frustration. “I just don’t understand why she never finished her nursing schooling if she wanted to be a nurse so much,” Tanya says. “I’m sure with the proper education and training, she could have changed her life and become a great nurse.” She wonders if Cleroux was too impatient, too impulsive to go straight. “Maybe education takes too long for her, and when she wants something, she wants it now,” she says. “Maybe fraud is easy for her and that’s all she knows.” She describes criminality as a path Cleroux got on when she was too young to know better. Now, perhaps, there’s no way to get off.

Sharon and Kayla, the women who had negative experiences while being treated for endometriosis at BC Women’s Hospital, have both signed on to Murphy Battista’s lawsuit, which they see as an opportunity for accountability and a way to ensure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to anyone else.

For Sharon, moving on has been hard. But the news of her interaction with a fake nurse has also been surprisingly validating. After the procedure at BC Women’s Hospital, she was plagued by self-doubt. She wondered if she had somehow misunderstood things and if she should have asked more questions. “I chalked it up to a bad experience and my own unfamiliarity with the medical system and moved on,” she says. “But this wasn’t okay. She was in a position of trust, and women suffered unnecessarily. This is a terrible breakdown in patient safety. It’s very distressing. How did she go undetected?”

This article appears in print in the May 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline “The many faces of Brigitte Cleroux.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.