Alberta health minister orders review 4 years after noose hung at Grande Prairie hospital
Investigation comes after CBC asked questions about 2016 incident targeting Black surgical assistant
On June 24, 2016, a white South African-born surgeon tied a noose and then taped it to the door of an operating room in the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Grande Prairie, Alta.
He told another doctor the noose was for a Black Nigerian-born surgical assistant.
The incident was reported minutes after it occurred. Several more times over the next four years, at least three doctors reported it — to the hospital's administration, Alberta Health Services, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta (CPSA) and Health Minister Tyler Shandro.
Several of those who reported the incident said as far as they know, nothing was done.
On Thursday afternoon, days after CBC News asked Shandro for an interview, the minister said he is ordering a third-party, independent investigation into the incident.
"This investigation will include looking into whether the incident was reported to local Alberta Health Services (AHS) administrators in 2016, and if so, how it was handled," Shandro said in a statement.
Sources say the surgeon, Dr. Wynand Wessels, was to their knowledge never suspended and faced no formal discipline.
Colleagues said Wessels continued to hold several leadership positions within the hospital and AHS. But an AHS spokesperson on Friday said the surgeon has "held no zone or medical leadership role since 2012."
In a statement, Alberta Health Services CEO Dr. Verna Yiu said the health authority took appropriate action, but did not mention any formal discipline or reprimand Wessels received at the time.
Wessels declined an interview request from CBC News. In a statement, he said: "Some years ago, as a foolish joke, I made what I considered to be a lasso and hung it in an operating room door. In no way was it intended to be a racist gesture.
"It was very quickly drawn to my attention by staff members that this was unacceptable," Wessels said. "I subsequently brought the matter to the attention of AHS and apologized both verbally and in writing to my colleagues.
"At the time, I did not appreciate the heinous symbolism behind the knot I created. I did undertake some self-study and I now have great insight into the symbolism here and I am terribly sorry and embarrassed about this incident."
CBC News, however, has obtained a letter of apology written by Wessels in 2016 in which he refers to the "small rope noose" he tied.
The colleague who was the target of the noose did not respond to repeated interview requests. His Grande Prairie colleagues have been in contact with him recently and say he fears losing his job. CBC News has chosen not to name him.
Dr. Carrie Kollias, a former member of the CPSA's council, which sets direction and policy for the college, filed several complaints about the incident, including to Shandro in August 2019.
Former NDP health minister Sarah Hoffman told CBC News she was not informed of the incident.
Kollias, who now lives in Australia, said AHS and others effectively tolerated the egregious behaviour.
"The fact the incident occurred — yes, that was atrocious," Kollias said in an interview. "But the lack of action, I think, is equally atrocious.
"What does that say to any other physician, health-care worker, hospital housekeeper, porter in the province of Alberta? It says that if you are a victim of an equal or lesser injustice, then don't bother reporting because nothing is going to happen."
Those interviewed by CBC News say what they view as the failure by the CPSA, AHS and the health minister to act on an incident involving a noose directed at a Black man stands in sharp contrast to several other similar cases in North America where offenders were immediately fired. In March, Boeing fired an employee weeks after after a noose was found hanging in its Charleston, S.C., plant.
In Toronto recently, police launched hate-crime investigations after nooses were hung at four construction sites.
Colleague witnessed surgeon making noose
Grande Prairie orthopedic surgeon Dr. Scott Wiens told CBC News he witnessed Wessels tying the noose in a hospital hallway.
"I was walking close to the door, he took a piece of tape and taped the rope onto the window" of an operating room, Wiens said, adding he did not immediately identify the object as a noose.
"And I looked at him and said, 'What's that for?' And he said, 'It's for your assistant,' and he walked away."
Wiens's Black surgical assistant trained as a surgeon in Nigeria but is not accredited in Canada. He is a contractor with Alberta Health Services.
Wiens said he took photos of the noose and later spoke to Dr. Alika Lafontaine, an anesthesiologist. Wiens said he and Lafontaine, who is Indigenous, removed the noose and took it to hospital administration.
Another doctor who worked in the same department, Dr. Tosin Akinbiyi, who is Black and also Nigerian-born, said he called the hospital's medical legal director and told her it was unacceptable.
The director agreed, Akinbiyi said, and told him the hospital would be looking into it.
Akinbiyi said he also exchanged texts with Dr. Richard Beekman, the hospital's deputy director. The response was markedly different.
"His initial statement was, you know, 'Is it really that big a deal?'" Akinbiyi said. "And then we discussed it further and he said he would be seeking further guidance on this issue from higher-ups."
Letter of apology
Wiens said he gave a statement to an AHS official in Grande Prairie. About six weeks later, he said, Beekman told him in an email that the matter was closed and would not be discussed again.
Beekman did not respond to interview requests on Thursday.
In early August 2016, Wessels wrote an apology letter, copies of which were provided to Wiens and Akinbiyi but not to the target of the noose, they said.
"I had no ill intentions with attaching the small rope noose to the [operating room] door," Wessels wrote in the letter. "The context was not explained and I can understand that this was interpreted as a rude attack on specific persons. I can assure you that this was not the case.
"I have never had, and will never use symbolic gestures to convey any message," he said. "I prefer to use open communication.
"I have reviewed the use of specific symbols in North America for my education," Wessels continued, adding it would never happen again.
Wessels's letter did not explain what he meant by the noose, or the apparent difference between how it is viewed in South Africa versus the obvious racist, violent implications the symbol holds in North America.
Jack Shuler, an associate professor of English at Denison University in Ohio and author of The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose, declined to comment on the Grande Prairie incident but said the noose as a symbol "is intended to intimidate."
"I would argue that that noose, the hangman's knot, in the 21st century is like the new burning cross," Shuler said.
Reported to college
Kollias said she heard about the incident in the fall of 2017 when she was an orthopedic surgeon in Lethbridge and was serving on the CPSA council.
She reported it to the college's complaints director, Dr. Michael Caffaro, after a board meeting on Dec. 1, 2017.
Caffaro appeared "extremely troubled" by the photos and report, Kollias said.
"And I felt at that time that, based on that, there would be some action taken or at least an investigation properly done, and hopefully sanctions," she said. "But this hasn't occurred to my knowledge."
Another doctor reported it to Caffaro in 2018. They exchanged emails for months. Caffaro said an investigative file had been opened but the doctor heard nothing more.
Kollias raised the incident again with Caffaro in October 2018. She heard nothing further.
Wiens said the Black surgical assistant provided a six-page letter about the incident to Caffaro in October 2019.
A CPSA spokesperson told CBC News that by law, the organization cannot discuss the details of specific cases, or even confirm if a complaint has been received or an investigation is underway.
AHS said it investigated incident fully
In a statement Thursday, Yiu said Alberta Health Services investigated and acted upon the "disturbing and unconscionable racist act."
"The organization acted to ensure the individual involved accepted responsibility, and that the victims were supported," Yiu said. "Formal apologies were sent to the affected physicians and additional education and professional development took place in 2016.
Yiu said AHS is awaiting the completion of an investigation by the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and will "take all necessary actions upon completion of this review."
Health minister told about incident in 2019
In August 2019, shortly after the provincial government announced an external review of Alberta Health Services, Kollias wrote a long letter to Shandro in which she referenced the incident.
"I am distressed to see that no tangible or confirmed sanctions have been taken on the part of any medical authority, neither AHS nor CPSA," Kollias wrote.
Kollias said apart from a generic reply that Shandro's office had received her email, she never heard anything more.
In a statement to CBC News Thursday, Shandro's office confirmed the minister received Kollias's letter in August 2019.
"Minister Shandro, recognizing the serious nature of the reported incident, raised the issue with senior departmental officials," press secretary Steve Buick said. "The issue was then elevated to AHS and the College of Physicians and Surgeons (CPSA), the independent regulatory body responsible for physician discipline.
"Minister Shandro received assurances from departmental officials throughout 2019 that the matter was being dealt with using long-standing investigative and disciplinary channels available to AHS through their medical staff bylaws, and separately by the CPSA."
The statement said several weeks ago, another member of the public contacted Shandro's office, "calling into question the status of the investigation."
Shandro contacted AHS and the College of Physicians and Surgeons and "was informed that work being undertaken by the CPSA is ongoing," the statement said.
Anger and frustration
"It appears that AHS' medical staff bylaws, which have not been updated in over a decade, may be hindering an effective response – including potential disciplinary action," Shandro's statement said. "For that reason, I am directing AHS to bring forward suggested bylaw updates within 60 days."
For Kollias and the others interviewed by CBC News, there is anger, frustration, and also a sense of disillusionment with Alberta's health-care system.
"You have a view that if something really bad happens, if the right people know about it, that action will be taken," Kollias said.
"And to see, to know that that did not occur is a hard reality, especially within the profession of medicine where we are aspiring to the highest ideals of caring for other humans."
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