A white doctor who targeted a Black surgical assistant by taping a noose to a door in a Grande Prairie hospital in 2016 should have been fired and the police should have been called in to conduct an investigation, says the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
"This is an act of overt, violent racism," said Michael Bryant, the association's executive director and general counsel. "If overt, violent racism isn't grounds for dismissal with cause, I don't what is."
As first reported by CBC News Friday, Dr. Wynand Wessels, 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 June 2016. He told another doctor the noose was for a Black Nigerian-born surgical assistant.
Two doctors immediately reported it to hospital administration. Over the next four years, at least three doctors reported it to the hospital's administration, Alberta Health Services (AHS), and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta (CPSA).
In a statement Thursday, AHS chief executive officer Dr. Verna Yiu said the matter had been investigated in collaboration with the CPSA and appropriate action was taken. But several sources said, as far as they knew, Wessels was never suspended and faced no formal disciplinary action.
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 August 2019, one of the doctors reported the incident to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, but said she heard nothing back.
In a statement to CBC News on Thursday, Shandro acknowledged he was told about the incident in August 2019. But he said he was assured by Yiu that the matter had been appropriately managed.
Shandro said new information recently provided by people with direct knowledge of the incident has led him to question whether the matter was properly handled.
The health minister ordered an independent third party review and he said the review's findings will determine what, if any, action he will take. There is no timeline for the completion of the review, which will be publicly released.
"AHS must answer for the choices they made many years ago," Shandro said through a statement Friday from his press secretary. Shandro also said the CPSA is continuing its investigation and "its mandate includes referring any complaint to police where they deem it may be criminal." Bryant said there was more than enough evidence to warrant firing the doctor.
"Surely there is enough here for the police to have been called," he said.
AHS needs to make it clear to staff that racism on the job is a fireable offence and the health system must develop a protocol around racist incidents and when police must be called, Bryant said.
Surgeon claims ignorance of symbolism
Wessels declined an interview request from CBC News. In a statement, he said he made a lasso, not a noose, and it was not intended as a racist gesture. He said after others told him the noose was unacceptable, he told AHS about the incident and later apologized to colleagues.
"At the time, I did not appreciate the heinous symbolism behind the knot I created," Wessels said. "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.
'Must confront racism head on'
The New Democratic Party was in power when the incident occurred in June 2016. At a news conference Friday, former NDP health minister Sarah Hoffman said she was not told about the noose incident. "This was racially motivated, it was a threat, and to me that speaks of a [potential] hate crime," she said.
Hoffman criticized Shandro for taking no action for nearly a year until CBC News made the incident public.
"That is not leadership," she said. "We must confront racism head on. We must be anti-racist. And sadly this has become a pattern with this government."
Hoffman referenced recent stories in which it was disclosed that Paul Bunner, speechwriter for Premier Jason Kenney, had for years publicly espoused racist, xenophobic and homophobic views when he worked as a journalist.
Kenney has refused calls to fire Bunner saying his views had "evolved."
Hoffman, however, said Bunner "should be immediately dismissed just as the doctor in Grande Prairie should have been immediately dismissed." Bryant said AHS should not have considered Wessels' apologies to coworkers sufficient for his taping of the noose, which he said contained an implicit threat of violence.
Alberta Health Services' handling of the matter sends a terrible message to employees and the public, he said. "The message is that racism will be tolerated within the Alberta health system," he said. "And today, people are saying loud and clear, 'No, racism should never be tolerated.'" If you have information for this story, or information for another story, please contact us in confidence at firstname.lastname@example.org.