The case of a Black doctor who says he was forced to leave New Brunswick after receiving a torrent of racist abuse could impact the province’s ability to attract more immigrants and doctors, observers say.
“This person had to leave the province and practise somewhere else, which is a loss to us,” said Moncef Lakouas, president of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council, in a recent interview.
“We don’t want cases like that.”
Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola, who is of Congolese descent, says he was threatened with lynchings and told to go back to Africa, among other insults, after he was falsely blamed in public statements for causing a COVID-19 outbreak in Campbellton, N.B., in the early months of the pandemic.
Ngola said he took a brief overnight trip to Quebec in May 2020 to pick up his daughter, and was told by provincial health authorities prior to leaving that he wouldn’t have to self-isolate because he was an essential worker.
A lawsuit recently filed by Ngola alleges the barrage of hateful insults came after Premier Blaine Higgs referred to Ngola at a May 27, 2020, news conference as an “irresponsible” medical professional who travelled outside the province for “personal reasons.”
While Higgs does not name Ngola, the statement of claim said the premier provided enough information for the doctor to be identified. It also alleges the province knew of Ngola’s innocence but colluded with the RCMP anyway to prosecute him.
The allegations have not been proven in court and the province has declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Lakouas, who is from Morocco but has lived in New Brunswick for 18 years, said he was “truly shocked” by the vitriol Ngola received following Higgs’ comments.
“What immigrants do want is home. It’s to feel (at) home, it’s to never be subject to what happened to Dr. Ngola,” he said. “When we hear stories like that, I’m shocked.”
The fact that it happened after Ngola had already spent years contributing to the community and building a reputation for himself was especially egregious, Lakouas said.
He said that immigration is going to play a “major role” in New Brunswick’s pandemic recovery, and that the situation is “definitely bad PR” in terms of bringing in more people.
“We cannot afford, in a province that needs a lot of people, … to keep just tossing people out,” Lakouas said.
“We have to learn how to live together, we have to understand one another, and we have to get through the differences together.”
‘You’re not safe here’
Even before the pandemic, New Brunswick has long been a province that has struggled to attract and retain health-care workers, especially doctors.
Although she doesn’t work in the Maritimes, it’s an issue that Dr. Danusha Foster, a family physician hailing from Guelph, Ont., is well aware of.
Foster heard of Ngola’s case early on. She said she was struck by Higgs’ comments about the “irresponsible” health-care worker, especially when the premier didn’t offer evidence linking Ngola to the outbreak.
As Foster watched the online attacks on the doctor unfold from afar, she said she knew she had to do something.
In August 2020, around the time when Ngola was charged with failing to self-isolate under the provincial Emergency Measures Act, she wrote a letter to support Ngola, which was signed by 1,500 doctors from across the country.
“It was just very disturbing, so I wanted to show support to my colleague,” she said.
In June 2021, after the charges against Ngola were dropped, she co-wrote another letter — this time, demanding that Higgs apologize to the doctor. That letter was signed by more than 600 doctors.
What was most disturbing, Foster said, was Higgs’ silence as Ngola continued to be pummelled by racist insults and threats.
“He never stepped in to say, ‘This is wrong, please stop the attacks,’” she said.
She said she has spoken with colleagues from New Brunswick, some of whom have left the province in part due to racism.
“People are scared to speak up, because things are not done and people can be easily scapegoated,” Foster said.
Ngola’s case, she said, tells racialized health-care workers who may be interested in coming to New Brunswick that they will not be protected should they encounter racism.
“It sends a message to potential people who want to practise that you’re not safe here. It’s a warning,” she said.
“I think the government really has to adjust their messaging to the public if they want to attract racialized people — not only to attract but to retain.”
Much of the abuse happened in the early months of the pandemic, when, on a surface level, people were celebrating health-care workers, calling them “heroes” and holding rallies to support them.
That support wasn’t shown to Dr. Ngola in the weeks that followed his perceived slip-up, said Foster.
“The public will celebrate you if you’re perfect. If you make a mistake, the public is holding you to a higher standard – and we don’t even know that (Ngola) made a mistake,” she said.
“But because his story was thrown out into the media so quickly, without anyone truly understanding the full facts, he was made a villain because of this perceived mistake.”
‘We can’t be losing doctors’
The province’s three opposition leaders were reserved in their reactions to the lawsuit, given Ngola’s matter is before the courts.
However, David Coon, the leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick, said he was disappointed by the “toxic,” racist comments made about the doctor online.
“It’s terrible,” Coon said. “We can’t be losing doctors, and here we lost a doctor to another province.”
Coon said the racism displayed online sends a “terrible message” to people looking to move to New Brunswick, but also said social media has a tendency to amplify the voices of the “toxic few.”
“It gives a terrible impression of the province, but an inaccurate one,” he said.
In a statement, interim Liberal Leader Roger Melanson called the situation “extremely regrettable.”
“Perhaps, had the premier apologized and offered some support for the doctor, this wouldn’t be happening,” he said. “It is a very sad and shameful chapter for our province.”
Kris Austin, leader of the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick, said at the time Ngola was accused of starting the COVID-19 outbreak, there was a lot of worry and emotion surrounding the pandemic.
“With that said, you do have to be careful, of course, how you address these issues and especially when you have individuals and someone like a doctor that served here in New Brunswick,” said Austin, adding Higgs’ comments “may have been a little premature.”
He also condemned the racist comments that were directed at Ngola.
“Social media can be a real breeding ground for a lot of nonsense and a lot of hatred,” he said.
“Especially here in New Brunswick, where we’re desperate for medical professionals, to have them scorned in public based on an accusation or an assumption, is never good.”