New Brunswick

Premier challenges former Campbellton doctor to waive privacy rights

Speaking in the legislature Tuesday, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs challenged a doctor formerly accused of being the cause of an outbreak of COVID-19 in Campbellton last May to waive his privacy rights so he can reveal "all the information" he has about the case.

Higgs says that would allow him to reveal 'all the information' he has on Campbellton outbreak

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs says he has information about the COVID-19 outbreak in Campbellton last May that he'd like to reveal. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Premier Blaine Higgs has publicly challenged Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola to waive his privacy rights so the premier can reveal what he says he knows about the physician and a cluster of COVID-19 cases in the Campbellton area last year.

Crown prosecutors withdrew a charge against Dr. Ngola last Friday for breaching the province's Emergency Measures Act by failing to quarantine when he returned from Quebec last year.

Ngola's lawyers have called on Higgs to apologize, but in the legislature Tuesday Higgs again brushed off that call and instead presented what he called "a proposal."

"If Dr. Ngola thinks that I disclosed his identity or I breached his privacy, all the facts should be on the table," Higgs said.

"If he suggests, okay, 'I'll give you a waiver, I will not charge you for privacy,' I'll reveal all the information that I know about this case, and then we'll end this discussion. So there, let's put it on the table." 

Higgs would not tell reporters what kind of information he was talking about, citing that privacy protection.

Lawyers fire back

But his comments prompted a fierce response from Ngola's lawyers, Joel Etienne and Christian Michaud.

"The premier and his government had more than a year to put forward a case in court against the good doctor," they said, in a joint statement emailed to CBC News.

All charges have been withdrawn against Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola, who now practises in Quebec. He was accused of violating the Emergency Measures Act for not quarantining. (Judy Trinh/CBC News file photo)

"We sought full disclosure in court, and in our opinion, we were constantly stonewalled in relation to obtaining materials from the premier's office and [the Department of] Public Safety."

The lawyers said the materials they received were "minimal" and they had planned to file an application for abuse of process before the Crown dropped the charge last week.

They also repeated their demand that Higgs apologize within seven days of last Friday's development in court.

"The clock is ticking," they said. "Very soon, everyone will see the actions that we are about to take."

Moncton Centre Liberal MLA Rob McKee said Higgs's comments show "that the premier has meddled in this file and he has no business doing what he's doing in this file."

Joel Etienne is a lawyer representing Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola and released a joint statement with Christian Michaud, Ngola's other lawyer, saying the premier stonewalled them in relation to obtaining material on the case. (Jean-François Benoît/CBC)
Christian Michaud is a member of Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola's legal team and is based in Moncton. (Nicolas Steinbachs/Radio-Canada)

While Higgs did not name Ngola in May 2020 and spoke only of an "irresponsible medical professional" who had returned from Quebec with a case of COVID-19, the physician was quickly identified on social medial platforms after testing positive.

He was suspended from his job and blamed for a cluster of cases in the area. He also received racist threats.

Ngola had left the province on an overnight trip to pick up his four-year-old daughter in Montreal.

Ngola has told CBC he returned to work after his trip without following the Campbellton Regional Hospital's 14-day self-isolation protocol because there was confusion at the time around the measures and other doctors who'd left the province were not self-isolating either. 

If convicted of violating the emergency law, Ngola, who now practices medicine in Quebec, would have been fined from $240 to $10,200.

Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola worked at the Campbellton Regional Hospital at the time of the COVID-19 outbreak last May. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

He was scheduled to go on trial June 14 but Crown prosecutor Sébastien Michaud said Friday the defence team provided evidence last month that persuaded the Crown there was no longer a reasonable probability of conviction. He didn't say what that evidence was.

"I was kind of disappointed the hearing didn't go on," Higgs said in the legislature Tuesday, "but it's not my call."

He suggested that getting the information out would end the debate about what he said last spring. "He'll see it, we'll see it, everyone will see it, and there it will go. It'll be over."

Asked whether his office had information that had never been disclosed to Ngola's lawyers, Higgs said that there was material "that I've never heard shared publicly" but would not describe what it is.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

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