Doctor demands apology from N.B. premier after COVID-19-related charge dropped

·3 min read

A doctor who faced a barrage of hate and racism after being accused of violating COVID-19 measures in New Brunswick is calling on the premier to apologize after a charge was dropped Friday.

Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola was accused of violating the province's Emergency Measures Act, but the Crown withdrew the charge after concluding there was no chance of conviction.

“This confirms what we already knew: Dr. Ngola is and has always been innocent, both in fact and in law, and he always respected the rules," Joël Étienne, one of Ngola's lawyers, said in a statement.

Ngola and his lawyers are threatening legal action if New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs does not publicly apologize for statements made in May 2020.

Without naming Ngola, Higgs had referred to a health-care worker being investigated by the RCMP for failing to self-isolate after returning to the province, in connection to an outbreak that resulted in 40 COVID-19 cases and two deaths. Higgs said the health zone in the north of the province was "at a higher risk due to the actions of one irresponsible individual.'' Ngola's name later leaked out.

In a letter sent Friday, the premier was given one week to issue the apology or face legal recourse.

Higgs has repeatedly refused to apologize, and on Friday he maintained that position. He said it will be up to Ngola to decide what he wants to do next.

"I really don't feel I have anything to apologize for," Higgs told reporters in Fredericton. "It's unfortunate if he took it personally ... I didn't name him, that all came out later."

Ngola's lawyers said that it became clear during the proceedings that Ngola had complied with provincial rules, followed instructions given to him at the border and had no obligation to self-isolate. There was no scientific basis to label him as patient zero, they said.

The RCMP probe was dropped last year, but until Friday he had still faced a charge of breaking provincial rules. "Defence counsel submitted evidence to the Crown on May 14, which led to the Crown reassessing its position and concluding that there no longer was a reasonable prospect of conviction," provincial Justice Department spokesman Geoffrey Downey said by email.

Ngola, a physician of Congolese descent, was the target of racist abuse after his positive COVID-19 status was leaked on social media. “The harassment I suffered was an absolute injustice," Ngola said in a statement through his lawyer on Friday. "Premier Blaine Higgs was as quick as possible to believe the negative — scapegoating a racialized Canadian, a person of immigrant background."

Ngola said the stigma extended to other racialized people in the province already coping with the pandemic and having to deal with the fear of bullying that comes with false accusations.

“The premier had to or ought to have known that what he was doing in putting the blame on Dr. Ngola was deceiving the people of New Brunswick from the very start, and he was dishonest with the public by insinuating that Dr. Ngola had failed to self-isolate after entering the province,” Christian Michaud, another of Ngola's lawyers, added in a statement.

“There is a terrible systemic racism history in North America of using the dog whistle against racialized citizens and labelling them as the 'bringer of diseases' and this has to stop.”

Amid threats and fearing for his safety, the doctor pushed ahead a plan to relocate to Quebec, where he has been practising medicine since late last year. "Higgs should be an honourable human being, apologize and admit he made a mistake," Ngola said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2021.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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