Edmonton

Government-ordered review of hospital noose ignored evidence of racism, Alberta doctors say

An association representing Nigerian-Canadian doctors is calling for Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro to reject a report that concluded a noose taped to a Grande Prairie hospital operating room door by a white surgeon — aimed in part at a Black colleague — was not a racist incident.

An association representing Nigerian-Canadian doctors calls for Alberta's health minister to reject the report

Dr. Wynand Wessels, a white Grande Prairie, Alta., surgeon, admitted in a disciplinary hearing that he tied this noose and taped it to the door of a hospital operating room in June 2016. A government-ordered report that found the incident was not motivated by racism sends a damaging message to Black professionals and erodes public confidence, says an association representing Nigerian-Canadian doctors. (Submitted by Dr. Carrie Kollias)

An association representing Nigerian-Canadian doctors is calling for Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro to reject a report that concluded a noose taped to a Grande Prairie, Alta., hospital operating room door by a white surgeon — aimed in part at a Black colleague — was not a racist incident.

"It requires a disturbing level of denial to give an interpretation other than grievous harm and death to a noose symbol," Dr. Adeyemi Laosebikan wrote in a recent letter to Shandro. 

Laosebikan said the report sends the message to Black health professionals "that there will be little or no protection for them against such aggressors.

"To future perpetrators of similar acts, the message is that they can expect to get away with a trivial apology," said Laosebikan, president of the 2,500-member Canadian Association of Nigerian Physicians and Dentists. "To the increasingly diverse public, this erodes confidence in the quality of care they may receive."

Shandro ordered the report in July 2020 after CBC News reported on the noose incident, which occurred at the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital four years earlier.

Dr. Adeyemi Laosebikan, president of the Canadian Association of Nigerian Physicians and Dentists, is calling on Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro to reject a report that concluded a noose taped to a Grande Prairie, Alta., hospital operating room door by a white surgeon was not a racist incident. (Canadian Association of General Surgeons)

It was first reported to hospital authorities minutes after it occurred in June 2016, and over the next four years, at least three doctors reported the incident to Alberta Health Services (AHS), the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta and to Shandro. 

The association's letter echoes the opinion of experts in racism and systemic discrimination who say consultant Donna Neumann's report ignored clear evidence of blatant racism.

"This is a situation where an instance of anti-Black racism was missed. It was missed by everyone," said Dana Campbell-Stevens, a lawyer with Rubin Thomlinson, a Toronto law firm that specializes in workplace investigations, including systemic discrimination and harassment. 

Neumann declined an interview request. Shandro's press secretary, Steve Buick, did not respond to emails requesting an interview.

Virtually no evidence of racism: report

Neumann's report concluded South African-born surgeon Dr. Wynand Wessels was not motivated by racism when he tied and taped a noose to an operating room door — aimed in part, by his own admission, at Dr. Oduche Onwuanyi, a Nigerian-born surgical assistant. 

"I found virtually no evidence that Dr. Wessels is racist," Neumann wrote. 

A disciplinary hearing by the College of Physicians and Surgeons also found there was no racist intent in the noose incident although Wessels pleaded guilty to unprofessional conduct. A three-day hearing to determine Wessels' sanction, if any, begins Monday.

Dana Campbell-Stevens, a lawyer with Rubin Thomlinson, said the noose is evidence of a racially motivated threat. (CBC)

Neumann devoted much of the report to examining the history of the toxic work environment at the hospital and stated "the noose incident is the result of the failure of management to deal with problems."

Campbell-Stevens said the workplace culture is irrelevant because nothing would justify hanging a noose in a workplace. Neumann's analysis ignored the symbolism of a noose and how a racist act is determined, she said. 

"The noose itself is evidence of a racially motivated threat. The noose is the evidence" said Campbell-Stevens, who is Black. 

She said everyone should understand the symbolism of a noose.

"It is like saying that a swastika painted on a synagogue isn't evidence of anti-Semitism. That is offensive," she said. 

Wessels has said he was raised in a remote area of South Africa and was unaware of the North American symbolism attached to a noose. Hundreds of Black people were hanged in South Africa during apartheid.

"To deny any awareness of the symbolism of a noose I think is disingenuous," said Barbara Perry, the director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. 

Perry said she was "shocked" that Neumann blamed the toxic work environment for the incident instead of conducting "a true analysis of systemic racism." 

The report concluded South African-born surgeon Dr. Wynand Wessels was not motivated by racism when he tied and taped a noose to an operating room door. (Name withheld)

In her report, Neumann said she spoke with several people of colour, none of whom felt the action was racially motivated, or that Wessels was racist. She said the only people who thought he was racist judged him solely by incomplete information in the media or based on what others said. 

But Laosebikan, Campbell-Stevens, and Perry said Neumann doesn't appear to understand that a racist act should not be judged by the stated intention but instead by the "impact" it has on the targeted individual or community.  

Onwuanyi has said he perceived the noose as a threat to life, a racist insult, and a slur directed at Black persons that was meant to intimidate. Neumann's report doesn't mention any of that. 

"It just seems a disconnect for that not to have been drawn out in her work," Perry said, adding later that she saw "serious gaps" in Neumann's report. 

Report breached privacy of witnesses

Alberta Health posted Neumann's report on its website without a news release on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend in May. It was taken down shortly after. 

CBC News has obtained an internal AHS letter that shows the report was taken down because it publicly named people who had been promised anonymity. The revised report has now been posted.

In her report, Neumann said she encountered a lot of "intense" fear among witnesses who did not wish to be publicly identified.

"Several reasons for this fear came to light but the main ones were: a) the fear of being bullied or harassed; b) the failure of the organization to do anything about it; and c) the potential breach of confidentiality of their comments to me and the resultant risk of retaliation," the report stated.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Charles Rusnell, Jennie Russell

Investigative reporters

Jennie Russell and Charles Rusnell are reporters with CBC Investigates, the award-winning investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. Their journalism in the public interest is widely credited with forcing accountability, transparency and democratic change in Alberta. Send tips in confidence to cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca. @charlesrusnell @jennierussell_

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