A white Grande Prairie surgeon who tied a noose and taped it to the door of an operating room in June 2016 where it could be seen by Black colleagues is guilty of unprofessional conduct, a regulatory body concluded in a ruling released Wednesday.
But the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta (CPSA) said there was not enough evidence to conclude that Dr. Wynand Wessels "was motivated by racism or intended to create a racist symbol when he hung the rope on the door."
"Dr. Wessels hung a piece of rope which could be perceived as a hangman's noose in a location where medical and hospital staff could see the rope," the college tribunal stated in its disciplinary decision.
"Whether used as a racist symbol or not, a rope tied in the shape of a noose and hung on a door would reasonably be viewed as threatening and intimidating."
The CPSA determined Dr. Wessels violated the Health Professions Act, the code of ethics and professionalism governing doctors, and the college's standards of practice with his actions.
His penalty will be decided at a later date.
CBC News revealed last year that Wessels had tied the noose and taped it to an operating room door at Grande Prairie's Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in June 2016. A fellow surgeon said Wessels told him the noose was aimed at Dr. Oduche Onwuanyi, a Black surgical assistant.
At his CPSA hearing in October, Wessels admitted he created the noose and admitted it was a breach of the college's code of conduct. But he denied he targeted Onwuanyi, claiming it was not intended to be racist or to intimidate any person or group.
Instead, Wessels, through his lawyer, said the noose — which he several times tried to characterize as a "lasso" — was meant to symbolize a team-building exercise similar to one he engaged in while he was a boy scout growing up in rural South Africa.
He said it was part of an "inside joke" between himself and a nurse about the lack of collaboration among staff.
In South Africa, Wessels claimed, the noose does not carry the same racist and violent implications it does in North America. Wessels has lived in Canada for many years.
Onwuanyi and two surgeons who complained to hospital administration could not contradict Wessels' version of events because the college did not call them as witnesses. Nor did it summon any other staff with direct knowledge of the incident or the culture at the hospital.
Wessels' lawyer, James Heelan, said Wednesday that because the matter is not yet concluded and remains before the tribunal, it would be inappropriate for Wessels to provide any comment.
Onwuanyi did not respond to an interview request Wednesday.
In a statement issued on Twitter, Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu said he could not comment on the case because it is now the subject of an RCMP investigation.
But he said that while the South African doctor was found guilty of professional misconduct, "the situation is also one where the symbolism of the hangman's noose is far reaching," said Madu, who like Onwuanyi, was born in Nigeria. "It is these types of situations that highlight for me the many issues around race that we as a society must overcome."
Intent was to send a message, college finds
The college's hearing tribunal rejected Wessels' claim that his actions were a mere joke or simply an attempt at team building.
"The Hearing Tribunal found Dr. Wessels was motivated by the discord in the hospital and hung the rope on the door with the intention of sending a message to one or more individuals," it concluded.
The tribunal said Wessels' conduct "offended some of his colleagues and was perceived as violent and racist by some people."
Wednesday's ruling comes after what sources described to CBC News as years of inaction by the hospital's administration, Alberta Health Services (AHS) and the college, who were repeatedly told about the incident.
In August 2019, a doctor reported the incident to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, but said she heard nothing back.
After CBC News contacted Shandro for comment, the minister ordered a third-party independent investigation into how AHS handled the incident, maintaining department officials repeatedly assured him the health authority and the CPSA were separately handling the matter.
The third-party investigator's findings will be made public, Shandro's spokesperson Steve Buick has said. The investigation was initially supposed to be concluded by the end of 2020 but in an email Wednesday, Buick said it has taken longer than expected partly due to the difficulty of arranging interviews during the pandemic. He said Shandro will receive the final report and any recommendations by the end of February.
At his hearing, Wessels testified that when a fellow surgeon, Dr. Scott Wiens, saw the noose and asked if it was for Onwuanyi, he replied that it was for anyone who was misbehaving, including Onwuanyi.
Shortly after, colleagues pointed out the racist and violent symbolism of the noose, at which point Wessels went to hospital administration, he testified.
Surgical assistant said he perceived noose as a threat
Wessels testified a local AHS executive told him that to "close" the matter he had to write a letter of apology to the two surgeons — Drs. Scott Wiens and Tosin Akinbiyi — who were concerned about the noose, which he did. He repeatedly said that he has since educated himself about the symbolism behind the noose.
He said he did not apologize to Onwuanyi because he said his colleague generally accepted his explanation that it wasn't racist, and was not meant to target him. Onwuanyi, he said, did not appear to be "aggressively unhappy" about the incident.
That was contradicted, however, by a letter Onwuanyi sent the college's associate complaints director in which he said he did not have an open discussion with Wessels about the noose incident.
Onwuanyi replied to a college investigator's question about how he perceived the noose by saying he thought it was "a threat, a racial insult, a slur directed at Black persons" that was meant to intimidate and symbolize a threat to life. "It was also seen as a hangman's noose, the main object used in segregation-era lynching, and was an illegal object internationally." University of Calgary health law professor Lorian Hardcastle, who has researched doctor discipline, said she believes the tribunal "certainly" had enough evidence to conclude Wessels' actions were racist. "In finding that a noose didn't constitute racism, I think that does send an unfortunate message to other doctors who may wish to complain about a colleague, and may not do so because they are concerned that the college may not find what happened to them [to be] racism," Hardcastle said. If you have information about this story, or information for another story, please contact us in confidence at email@example.com
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