Grande Prairie surgeon's taping of noose to door 'inappropriate,' but not racist, review finds

A Grande Prairie surgeon's taping of a noose to the door of an operating room in 2016 was an inappropriate but not racist incident in a hospital plagued by a toxic work culture, a government-ordered external report has concluded.

Dr. Wynand Wessels taped the noose to the door of an operating room in June 2016

A lawyer for the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta's complaints director said Wednesday that Dr. Wynand Wessels should receive a one-year suspension for tying this noose and taping it to an operating room door in 2016. Wessels' lawyer argued for a much lighter penalty. (Submitted by Dr. Carrie Kollias)

A Grande Prairie surgeon's taping of a noose to the door of an operating room in 2016 was an inappropriate but not racist incident in a hospital plagued by a toxic work culture, a government-ordered external report has concluded.

In the 458-page report, quietly posted online by Alberta Health on the Friday afternoon before the long weekend, external investigator Windowpane Management concluded there was a "long history of troubling behaviour" within Grande Prairie's Queen Elizabeth II Hospital. 

"The culture was described variously as fearful, unsafe, threatening, chaotic, and disrespectful," Windowpane president Donna Neumann wrote in the report. "The most common word used to describe the culture was 'toxic'."

But Neumann found "virtually no evidence" that Dr. Wynand Wessels, the white surgeon who tied the noose in June 2016, is racist.

"It was intimidating and meant to make a point but there is no evidence that it was racially motivated," though she said it was "startling in the degree to which it was inappropriate."

She said the only people "who thought Dr. Wessels was racist were those who judged him solely based on the incomplete information in the media or as was passed by word of mouth."

Her report, however, never addressed the implications of Wessels tying a noose, a symbol with a well-known violent and racist history, in a place where it could be easily seen by his Black colleagues, including Nigerian-born Dr. Oduche Onwuanyi.

In July 2020, CBC News revealed Wessels' actions at the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital and the fact a surgeon colleague, Dr. Scott Wiens, said Wessels told him the noose was aimed at Onwuanyi, a Black surgical assistant.

Wessels has said he was not aware of the violent symbolism behind a noose. He claimed the noose does not carry the same racist and violent connotations in South Africa, where he is from, as it does in North America. (Name withheld)

Sources described years of inaction by the hospital's administration, Alberta Health Services (AHS), and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta. A doctor also reported the incident to Health Minister Tyler Shandro in August 2019 but said she heard nothing back.

After CBC News contacted Shandro for comment, the minister ordered the third-party investigation into how AHS handled the issue.

Initial AHS investigation of event was 'cursory'

Windowpane's report reviewed the noose incident and any other incidents of alleged racism or discrimination, the workplace culture at the hospital, and physician and staff relationships.

In her report's timeline of events, Neumann said Wiens saw the noose and asked about it, and that Wessels said it was for anyone misbehaving, including Wiens' assistant, Onwuanyi. The noose was on the door of the operating room Wiens and Onwuanyi were using.

She said two of three witnesses with direct knowledge of the incident reported it immediately, as did Wessels after he was told his actions were inappropriate.

Wessels taped the noose to the door of an operating room in June 2016. (Submitted by Dr. Carrie Kollias)

AHS' medical affairs conducted an investigation and imposed sanctions on Wessels, including his attendance at a meeting about the event, self-education on the history and symbolism of the noose, and written apologies to Wiens and another colleague, Dr. Tosin Akinbiyi. 

But Neumann said medical leadership "determined there was no need for the facilitated meeting" and the incident remained confidential, and was not communicated to staff.

"The investigation was timely and conducted according to the bylaws," she wrote. "While it did meet 'the letter of the law', it was cursory, focused narrowly on the presenting issue, and missed the opportunity to address larger questions."

Onwuanyi did not respond to an interview request.

Hospital ombudsman needed, report finds

Among her 26 recommendations, Neumann said the provincial government and AHS should amend its bylaws and physician contracts to include "expectations of behaviour" and should also appoint an independent hospital ombudsman.

"On investigation of the existence of broader based racism and/or discrimination, I found very little to support the allegations," Neumann wrote, saying there is "some racial diversity" at the hospital and in AHS zones.

"It is not always proportionate to the overall population of physicians," she wrote. "I was unable to determine whether this was a systemic problem or whether, as several physicians reported, there was a lack of interest in taking on leadership roles. "

The government paid Windowpane $135,000 for its work.

In a statement, AHS said it accepts all but a few of Neumann's recommendations that it said do not fit with the health authority's model, but will implement "alternative measures" in those cases. It said it has already taken steps to address some of the issues identified in the report, including establishing an anti-racism advisory group.

"We are committed to taking action and making changes that will improve workplace practices and culture," the statement said. "We will be reporting our progress to the minister on this."

In a statement, Minister Shandro said AHS will report back to him in one month on their implementation of the report's recommendations. He said the health authority is already working to improve its medical bylaws.

"They're also taking steps to improve culture, celebrate diversity, and address racism and discrimination," Shandro said.

In January, a College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta tribunal found Wessels guilty of unprofessional conduct. But it said there was not enough evidence to conclude he was motivated by racism or meant to create a racist symbol.

During his hearing, Wessels repeatedly tried to characterize the noose as a "lasso" and said the noose does not carry the same racist and violent implications in South Africa, where he grew up. He said the knot was meant to symbolize a team-building exercise from when he was a boy scout.

However, in a 2016 apology letter Wessels, who has lived in Canada for many years, referred to the "small rope noose" he tied.

Wessels' sanction hearing will begin June 14. The RCMP is also conducting a hate crime investigation.

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

With files from Charles Rusnell