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Alberta health authorities failing doctors, public with response to 2016 noose incident: experts

Statements issued by provincial health authorities in response to a 2016 racist incident involving a noose displayed in a Grande Prairie hospital are likely to further erode public trust in their ability to discipline physicians, legal experts say.

College of Physicians and Surgeons now admits it should have dealt with case sooner

Grande Prairie surgeon Dr. Wynand Wessels tied this noose and taped it to the door of an operating room in 2016. (Submitted by Dr. Carrie Kollias)

Statements issued by provincial health authorities in response to a 2016 racist incident involving a noose displayed in a Grande Prairie hospital are likely to further erode public trust in their ability to discipline physicians, legal experts say.

Now, in response to that criticism, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta (CPSA) admits it failed to do its job.

"We fully accept the fact that it has taken the CPSA way too long to be engaged in this incident," the college's registrar, Dr. Scott McLeod, said in an interview Tuesday.

"We should have been more aggressive in dealing with it at the time."

Last week, CBC News revealed that Dr. Wynand Wessels, a white South Africa-born surgeon tied a noose and then taped it to the door of an operating room in Grande Prairie's Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in June 2016. He told another doctor the noose was for a Black Nigerian-born surgical assistant.

Two doctors immediately reported it to hospital administration. Over the next four years, at least three doctors reported it to the hospital's administration, Alberta Health Services (AHS), and the CPSA. But several sources said, as far as they knew, Wessels was never suspended and faced no formal disciplinary action.

The Black surgical assistant, who trained as a surgeon in Nigeria but is not accredited in Canada, declined to speak to CBC News because, colleagues say, he fears losing his job.

The story caused outrage across the country.
University of Calgary health law associate professor Lorian Hardcastle says health authorities' response to a 2016 racist incident involving a noose at a Grande Prairie hospital sends a terrible message to not only the target of the noose, but the public who depends on the authorities' ability to regulate physicians. (Submitted by Lorian Hardcastle)

In a statement, AHS chief executive officer Dr. Verna Yiu said the health authority investigated the "disturbing and unconscionable racist act" and took appropriate action, which included Wessels issuing apologies to colleagues and AHS providing additional education and professional development."

She said now — four years after the incident — AHS is awaiting the results of an investigation by the CPSA and will "take all necessary actions upon completion of the review."

McLeod on Friday posted a public statement to the college's website and emailed it to the province's doctors.

He said while by law he could not discuss the specifics of the incident, "in rare cases the investigation of complex cases can take a number of years." McLeod said the college "will not tolerate any type of racist behaviour."

Response undermines public trust, expert says

But Lorian Hardcastle, a University of Calgary health law associate professor who has researched doctor discipline, said the health authorities did not immediately take the degree of action necessary to show they take racism seriously.

"I think it is concerning that the system seems to have failed not just this particular doctor, but any doctor that is experiencing discrimination in the workplace," she said.

"And I think it also tends to undermine public trust in self-regulation, that only once this issue hit the media and became a matter of public record do we see that the college and AHS seem to have a fire lit under them to resolve this issue."

Wessels declined an interview request. In a statement, he claimed he made a lasso, not a noose, as a "foolish joke" and that "in no way was it intended to be a racist gesture."

"At the time, I did not appreciate the heinous symbolism behind the knot I created," Wessels wrote, saying he apologized to colleagues and has done some self-educating on the symbolism behind a noose.

Wessels' response to CBC News contradicts a 2016 apology letter he wrote to a colleague in which he admitted to tying a "small rope noose." 
The registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, Dr. Scott McLeod, now admits the college took "way too long" to investigate this incident. (College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta)

Indiana University law professor Jeannine Bell studies hate crimes and policing, and has written about how the symbolism of the noose affects victims. 

She said Wessels' explanations in 2016 and more recently make no sense. 

"This is not a symbol that can be confused with a lot of things," she said, adding that a noose's victim would clearly see it as a threat. 

"Frequently perpetrators say, 'I had no idea what it meant,'" Bell said. "Well, why were you tying it?"

Health minister's response questioned

In August 2019, a doctor escalated the issue to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, but said she heard nothing back. Last week, after CBC News contacted Shandro for comment, the minister ordered a third-party independent investigation into AHS' handling of the case.

Shandro has refused repeated interview requests. In a statement, he confirmed he learned of the incident in August 2019 but said department officials repeatedly assured him that AHS and the CPSA were both separately dealing with the matter.

"Did all he hear was 'We're dealing with this,' and he was satisfied with that response?" Hardcastle asked. "If not, why didn't he ask specifically what disciplinary actions are being taken, specifically why has this investigation taken so long, what was the response, was the doctor suspended?" she said.

"It seems that all of a sudden, being concerned with this issue is perhaps more for public perception issues than actually being concerned about this issue."

Yiu declined another interview request from CBC News on Tuesday. In a statement, a spokesperson said AHS had no further comment because a third-party review is underway.

CPSA says complaints backlog delayed handling of case

CPSA registrar Dr. Scott McLeod acknowledged the case should have been dealt with sooner and said the college had been overwhelmed by the volume of complaints — as many as 900 a year — it had to address.

McLeod said the college hired a consultant and increased funding to address what he said was a chronic backlog of cases.

"Unfortunately this case all unfolds at about the same time that we are going through a complete re-engineering of our complaints process," he said.

'It reads like an excuse'

Hardcastle said it is difficult to see how this case would take so long to investigate, given that Wessels admitted his actions and complainants were clearly willing to give evidence.

She said AHS' statement that it is awaiting the results of the CPSA investigation also doesn't pass scrutiny.

"It reads like an excuse to me," Hardcastle said, "because AHS simultaneously said that it dealt with this previously but now is awaiting hearing from the college.

"There is also no reason that AHS has to wait for the college," she continued, adding both investigations could run in parallel and AHS could have already issued sanctions.

"It is concerning for one to wait on the other, where one has been dragging this out for several years," Hardcastle said. "To me, the two processes should complement each other and so if one process is slow or ineffective, the other one will fill in that gap."

Bell, who is Black, said the health authorities need to understand that such a racist act doesn't only affect the victim.

"The entire community feels the harm of bias-motivated violence," she said.

"Anyone who sees the noose, hears about the noose, (anyone) who fits the profile for which a noose is a symbol of violence, can be and is harmed by it."

If you have information for this story, or information for another story, please contact us in confidence at cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca.


Jennie Russell, Charles Rusnell

Former investigative reporters

Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell were reporters with CBC Investigates, the investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. They left CBC in 2021. Their journalism in the public interest is widely credited with forcing accountability, transparency and democratic change in Alberta.