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Witnesses blame Grande Prairie hospital noose incident on toxic work environment

A Grande Prairie nurse told a sanction hearing Tuesday a white surgeon taped a noose to an operating room door after a conversation about dysfunction in the hospital and it was neither racist nor meant to target any individual.

Colleagues testified in Dr. Wynand Wessels' defence saying he displayed poor judgment but is not racist

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 nurse told a sanction hearing Tuesday a white surgeon taped a noose to an operating room door after a conversation about dysfunction in the hospital and it was neither racist nor meant to target any individual.

Nicole Ressler testified she was talking to Dr. Wynand Wessels on June 24, 2016 about the need for disciplinary action against disruptive staff when the surgeon began to tie the noose.

Wessels said, "'I will just leave this here for you in case anybody misbehaves today,'" Ressler told a panel from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta (CPSA).

"I feel like he did that in support of me and my frustration with the system," said Ressler, who earlier testified Wessels did not relate the noose to any specific person.

Wessels later taped the noose to the door of an operating room in which Black surgical assistant Dr. Oduche Onwuanyi was working.

Onwuanyi testified on Monday he believed the noose was racist and was meant to threaten and intimidate him. 

Several colleagues testified in Wessels' defence Tuesday. They said the surgeon displayed poor judgment but is not racist.

"It was completely out of character for him," Dr. Raube Denkema said of his fellow South African-born surgeon, friend, and business partner.

Denkema said Wessels approached him shortly after the noose was discovered.

He said Wessels described it as being like a lasso to "herd people together or to get people moving in the same direction."

But Denkema said Wessels told him he had heard there may be "racial connotations" to the knot.

A former hospital anesthesiologist, Dr. Liam McGowan, said he and other doctors would tie knots between surgeries, including sometimes a noose to show it could be done.

He said he had tied nooses "four or five times" as part of a joke about having an "exit strategy" from the hospital.

An Alberta Health Services administrator testified the hospital dealt with the Wessels noose matter informally.

"The medical leadership at the time didn't deem it necessary to do a formal investigation," she said.

Toxic work environment 

The college announced a hearing for Wessels shortly after CBC News revealed the surgeon's actions.

It found him guilty of unprofessional conduct earlier this year but ruled there was insufficient evidence to conclude he was motivated by racism or intended to create a racist symbol. An independent consultant, hired by Alberta Health, echoed that finding.

Wessels' defence team has sought to establish that CBC News' revelation of the noose incident in July last year was part of an attempt by surgeon Dr. Scott Wiens to discredit Wessels and to deflect attention from his own professional problems. 

CBC News first learned of the noose incident in early 2017 from sources outside the hospital and made several unsuccessful attempts to verify it in the intervening years.

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)

On Tuesday, several witnesses described a toxic work culture driven in large part by Wiens, who they described as verbally abusive, disruptive, and dishonest.

Two witnesses — a nurse and a clerk — said they feared retaliation from Wiens for testifying but felt they had a moral obligation.

In testimony Monday, Dr. Alika Lafontaine, an Indigenous anesthesiologist, told the hearing panel there was a "myth" permeating the CPSA proceedings that there is a causal relationship between the noose incident and the chronic dysfunction at the hospital.

"Hostility can be expressed in many non-racial ways," Lafontaine said. "There is an endless list of (ways) perpetrators can choose in a hostile environment to express dissatisfaction."

The RCMP is conducting a hate crime investigation into the incident. The sanction hearing is expected to conclude Wednesday.

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.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennie Russell, Charles Rusnell

Investigative reporters

Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell 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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