New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs has rejected calls to apologize to a family doctor who was blamed for the COVID-19 outbreak in Campbellton last year and the provincial charge against him was dropped Friday, 11 days before his trial began.
Jean-Robert Ngola, 51, was described by some as “patient zero” in May 2020 after he tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after driving out of the province on an overnight flight to pick up his four-year-old daughter in Montreal. Campbellton is located on the Quebec border, across the Restigouche River from Pointe-à-la-Croix, Que.
He was charged last August with violating the county emergency procedures law for failing to quarantine upon his return. If found guilty, Ngola will have to pay a fine ranging from $240 to $10,200.
Ngola’s trial was due to begin on June 15, but in court on Friday, King Sebastian Michaud’s attorney general said the defense team had presented evidence last month that showed there was no longer a reasonable prospect of a conviction. He did not say what this evidence is.
Lawyers demand ‘categorical apology’
Saying the legal issue has been resolved, Ngola’s lawyers said Higgs could no longer hide behind “pending district court matters” and called on the prime minister to apologize for his role in the ordeal that led to racist threats and the doctor’s arrest and indictment.
“This is the third time we have publicly asked, as a man who claims to be a person of faith, that you apologize respectfully and frankly to Dr. to the Prime Minister.
“There was no factual or scientific basis justifying the massive publication of more than 21 RCMP criminal investigators against Dr. Ngola,” the letter said, citing information in court documents about the investigation.
On Friday, Higgs told reporters he didn’t feel like he had anything to apologize for.
“If I remember at the time, we had our first death there on the long journey of COVID, and we needed to make sure everyone was following the rules carefully,” Higgs said during a visit to a vaccination clinic in Fredericton.
“It’s unfortunate that he took it personally,” he said. “I didn’t take it out. I didn’t name it.”
Blame it within hours
Ngula’s problems started over a year ago, and he tested positive for COVID-19 on the morning of May 27, 2020. An hour later, his name was leaked to the Campbellton Facebook group as “Patient Zero”. That afternoon at a press conference, Higgs blamed an “irresponsible medical professional” for a cluster of cases and a resurgence of the virus in the county.
The Prime Minister did not identify Ngola by name, but two hours after Higgs’ remarks, Ngola was suspended without pay from his job at the Vitalité Health Network. Besides being a family physician, Ngula has also worked in the emergency room at Campbellton Regional Hospital.
A day later, Higgs said the investigation into the Ngola case had been transferred to the RCMP, although court documents would reveal that the police had yet to receive a formal complaint. The district public health officer, who was conducting her own investigation into contact tracing, refused to hand over the information to the police on the grounds of patient confidentiality.
Instead, Dr. Marianne Paquet urged police to protect Ngola, who has been subjected to increasing racist attacks, including threats that called for his “extrajudicial execution”.
They are treated as criminals
Ngula, reached at his clinic in Louisville, Kew, where he now works as a family doctor, said he wanted an apology from the prime minister for having been treated “like a criminal for contracting the virus.”
“It was unfair,” said Ngola, who said he felt “harassed” by the police who continued to investigate him even when it turned out he had committed no crime.
Ngula said the experience affected his confidence. Although he now practices medicine in another province, Ngola says he has often been stopped by strangers asking about his legal problems. He feels that he is constantly scrutinized by patients and fears that if he treats them too quickly, they will guess the medical care he is providing.
In September, CBC V real estate العقارات The investigation revealed that Ngoula was unlikely to be patient zero for a number of reasons. First, about 10 percent of hospital staff and 20 percent of patients at Campbellton Provincial Hospital where the river operated regularly crossed into Quebec — because they live there. Second, contact tracing was unlikely to be completed within three hours from the time Ngola received his positive test to the prime minister’s press conference.
“The prime minister was as quick as possible to believe the negatives,” Ngoula said. He should be an honest person and admit his mistake.”
Njoula admitted to CBC that he returned to work after his trip and did not follow the hospital’s COVID-19 protocols, which specified that anyone who had traveled outside of New Brunswick — except for those traveling from Quebec or Maine — had to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return.
Ngula said there was a lot of confusion at the time about COVID-19 measures and that other doctors he worked with had not self-isolate after traveling out of the county. He told CBC News he took precautions while traveling.
Lawyers are looking into the civil case
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) dropped its criminal investigation in August 2020, but chose to go ahead with a provincial charge that comes with a potentially hefty fine.
Higgs previously said he did not know the doctor’s identity when he made his remarks.
“I had no knowledge of the individual until it appeared on social media,” Higgs said last summer. “The concern I’ve had throughout this pandemic is that we have to be conscious. We are very dependent on our medical professionals. It was disappointing because it led to two deaths.”
In their statement, Ngoula’s lawyers said the prime minister should have been aware of the inflammatory nature of his remarks and noted that latent racism against people of color played a role.
“There is a terrible history of systematic racism in North America using dog whistles against citizens who suffer from racism, calling them a ‘source of disease,’ and this must stop,” attorney Christian Michaud said in a statement.
In their letter to the prime minister, Michaud and Etienne Higgs gave seven days to apologize and come to a “respectful and appropriate decision”.
If no apology comes, lawyers say Ngola authorized them to “move things forward”.
New Brunswick’s opposition critic to the attorney general, Rob Mackey, said the withdrawal of the charge against Ngola was “not a surprising development.”
“The Crown appears to believe there is insufficient evidence to prove the charge,” Mackey said in an emailed statement.
“As we indicated at the outset, it was the irresponsible actions of the Prime Minister in bringing this accusation that Dr. Ngoula became the target of anger and harassment.”
For more stories about Black Canadians’ experiences – from anti-black racism to success stories within the black community – check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.