Sexual harassment and bullying claims against B.C. doctor lead to legal fight with national body

·4 min read
Dr. Charles Webb is a former director at the Canadian Medical Association and has previously served as president of Doctors of B.C. and the Vancouver Medical Association.  (DrCharlesWebb.ca - image credit)
Dr. Charles Webb is a former director at the Canadian Medical Association and has previously served as president of Doctors of B.C. and the Vancouver Medical Association. (DrCharlesWebb.ca - image credit)

A would-be candidate for president of Canada's largest professional organization for doctors has had his membership in the group reinstated by a judge, following allegations he sexually harassed medical residents and bullied junior staff members.

In a recent judgment, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Nathan Smith set aside the suspension of Dr. Charles Webb's membership in the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), writing that the Vancouver physician was denied his right to procedural fairness.

The judge said Webb had a right to see an independent reviewer's report on the allegations and to respond to the findings.

"Because Dr. Webb never received the report, he has no way of knowing how the allegations were substantiated," Smith wrote.

"Presumably, the reviewer drew conclusions on the complainants' credibility, but Dr. Webb does not know the basis for those conclusions."

The judge did not, however, agree with the arguments in Webb's petition suggesting he was entitled to an oral hearing with the right to cross-examine complainants.

Webb has denied all of the allegations against him and says they are too vague to mount a proper defence.

The CMA is a national voluntary organization representing the majority of doctors across Canada. Webb is a former director for the organization, and has previously served as president of Doctors of B.C. and the Vancouver Medical Association.

Harassment, bullying a 'huge challenge' in medicine

The case highlights what CMA president Dr. Katharine Smart calls an ongoing problem with harassment and bullying within the culture of medicine.

"I've experienced this many times throughout my training and as an attending physician, and we recognize that that is a huge challenge in front of us as a profession and as an organization," she told CBC.

"We are deeply committed to challenging that environment."

Smart said the allegations against Webb were raised at a board meeting last fall.

Canadian Medical Association
Canadian Medical Association

According to affidavits filed in connection with the case, Webb received a notice on Nov. 4, 2021 saying the CMA was proposing a 364-day suspension of his membership, subject to a review by a third party investigator and any written submissions from Webb.

The CMA's affidavits say the review confirmed Webb made unwelcome sexual comments to a resident and directors of the CMA board, bullied and harassed CMA staff and directors, and breached confidentiality by disclosing confidential information he'd received as a board member.

Webb's membership was officially suspended on Jan. 31, which made him ineligible to run for election as CMA president in March.

Board member Dr. Alexander Poole wrote in an affidavit that if Webb were to run and win the election, it "would undoubtedly cause serious reputational damage to the CMA and would seriously undermine the CMA's voice as an agent of change."

Webb says allegations were 'so vague'

Webb told CBC in an email that taking the matter to court has come at "significant personal cost," but he is grateful for the judge's decision.

"The timing of the CMA suspension, which has now been set aside, denied me the opportunity to run for president-elect. I had wanted to advance an agenda of substantial change were I to win," he wrote.

He said the CMA's process didn't meet the basic requirements of natural justice.

"The allegations were so vague I was unable to respond. Even the identity of the individuals or the dates of incidents were not provided," Webb said.

The CMA has argued that the people who stepped forward with complaints against Webb have expressed fear about repercussions to their careers, and that revealing their identities might discourage other alleged victims from speaking out.

In an affidavit filed in support of his petition, Webb pointed out that he'd been publicly critical of the CMA in the months before his suspension, signing his name to open letters denouncing a proposed bylaw that would have eliminated elections for association board members in an effort to improve diversity. That bylaw was ultimately defeated.

Poole's affidavit says any suggestion that the decision to suspend Webb was influenced by his public statements is simply "not true."

Webb had asked the court for the election to be postponed while his petition was being considered, but the judge declined. Ultimately, Dr. Kathleen Ross, another B.C. doctor who spoke out publicly against the CMA's proposed bylaw change, was voted president-elect.

Smart, the current president, said the CMA is still considering how to respond to the judge's decision reinstating Webb's membership, but she remains concerned about the allegations.

"For us, these allegations are very serious. We take them very seriously and we're very committed to that culture change and to protecting victims who do experience bullying and sexual harassment," she said.

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