Father of Rehtaeh Parsons pleads for new law against malicious harassment online

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OTTAWA — The father of Rehtaeh Parsons says harassed teens and their families are in desperate need of better tools to combat cyber bullying. 

Leah Parsons, second from right, mother of Rehtaeh Parsons and her partner Jason Barnes as well as Rehtaeh's father Glen Canning, second from left, and wife his Krista speak to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday.

Glen Canning gave an emotional address Tuesday after he and Rehtaeh’s mother Leah Parsons spent about 45 minutes meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Parliament Hill.

“We did everything we could, but we were drowning. We felt helpless,” Canning said of the year the family spent trying to get Rehtaeh help and relief from her tormentors.

The 17-year-old Nova Scotia girl took her own life earlier this month following an alleged rape and online harassment that included posting photos of the assault. Rehtaeh told a psychiatrist a year ago she was going to hang herself with a belt, said her father. She did so earlier this month.

As he spoke, his partner Krista Canning burst into tears, while Leah Parsons and Rehtaeh’s stepfather Jason Barnes stared fixedly at the marble floors.

“We just didn’t have any tools,” said Canning. “For the way laws are set up in Canada right now, there was absolutely nothing we could do to help our daughter but stand there and watch her die.”

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, who also met with Harper, said he and the prime minister appear to be on the same page — that online harassment needs to be treated as a criminal offence.

“The fact of the matter is that people who transmit intimate images without consent do so maliciously, they do so with the intent to injure the subject matter of those images,” said Dexter. “Somehow as a society we have to deal with this.”

That will require “appropriate sanctions” but also a change in social norms, said the premier. Transmitting such images must become as socially unacceptable as drunk driving or racism, he said.

The prime minister “very much understood the concerns I had about the particular aspects of the gaps that exist in the current Criminal Code,” said Dexter. "Freedom on the Internet cannot mean the freedom to “destroy somebody else’s life.”

Harper did not speak with reporters after the meeting, but Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the government has launched official consultations for a federal victims’ bill of rights. And Nicholson said federal-provincial talks were already begun last October, following the suicide of harassed Vancouver teen Amanda Todd, to address cyberbullying “and the non-consensual distribution of intimate images.”

He said he’ll recommend Wednesday in a meeting with his provincial counterparts that the legal changes be made as quickly as possible.

Last year the government made changes to include new criminal offences for online crimes, including luring and conspiring to abuse a child, in an effort to prevent victimization.

“Over the years we’ve had gaps that have been identified to us in the Criminal Code,” Nicholson told a consultation group of crime victim advocates earlier Tuesday. The event was part of the government’s promotion of Victims of Crime Week.

The Conservative government has frequently used victims of crime to promote its tough sentencing agenda, although critics have said the heavy focus on offender punishment offers little practical help to assist the victimized.

The latest Conservative announcement is development of a Victims’ Bill of Rights. The idea is to clearly lay out what rights victims of crime have within the justice system — principally the right to timely information about their case and the ongoing handling of the offender. The concept is not new; all the provinces have such bills of rights —Manitoba since 1986 — but their practical effect has been limited.

“Over the next number of months, I want to get as much input as possible,” Nicholson said when asked about a federal victims’ bill. “There’s no point in us coming forward with a bill and then hearing later that we might have done something slightly different.”

Provincial rights bills for victims of crime have proved in the courts to be largely symbolic and an expert in the field said any federal bill will likely face the same issue of lack of enforceability.

Scott Kenney, a sociologist at Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L., who specializes in victims’ issues, said the rights of the accused are enshrined in the Constitution while victims’ rights are legislated — and the Constitution trumps legislated rights. He said without enforcement power for victims’ rights, they become largely “symbolic politics.”

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