How Canada has changed in the year since the suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew
A photo of Rehtaeh Parsons, who died in April, was used on an advertisement for a dating website on Facebook.

One year ago nearly to the day, a Nova Scotian teen who the country had never met took her own life in reaction to, her parents say, the taunts, jeers and online harassment that followed the online posting of a photograph of the young girl being sexually assaulted.

Her name was Rehtaeh Parsons and her death would go on to significantly impact Canadian society, its culture and laws, and perhaps how the younger generation perceives their behaviour, their responsibilities and themselves.

It is a lofty aim, but one that may not be as far out of reach as some night fear.

Parsons' father, Glen Canning, says there have been changes since Rehtaeh's death. But those changes have been slow.

“In the week following Rehtaeh’s death I was much too devastated to speak, much less able to head out into the fray of cameras and reporters,” Canning said in a blog post this week.

“That changed when I saw the crowds and the support. It was and remains truly overwhelming and it continues to touch our lives deeply.”

The story of Rehtaeh Parsons has reached almost mythical status for many who have been following in the wake of her death. Parsons was bullied and teased at school after a photo was posted online which her family says showed her being sexually assaulted at a party in 2011. She attempted suicide and, on April 7, 2013, she died in hospital.

Two teens were charged with child pornography-related offenses; the matter is still before the courts. No charges were even laid in relation to the incident itself, despite two police investigations.

In the wake of Rehtaeh's death, mother Leah Parsons and father Glen Canning were thrust into the role of public advocates, rallying against online harassment, petitioning the government and acting as a beacon for those who found kinship with their daughter's plight.

Leah Parsons said she has been contacted by teens and parents from around the world.

“It’s a world-wide thing. She resonates with other people because they know how easily it could be their child,” Leah Parsons told Metro Halifax.

"Don’t stand around and do nothing. You’ve got to speak up. If you’re saying something negative about a female … you’ve got to make it socially unacceptable, that it’s not cool.”

Canning has documented his journey in a blog, most recently discussing how his decision to speak out about his daughter's struggles has made him a target for societal dregs, including online trolls and those who would blame women for their own sexual assaults.

"They send messages reminding me Rehtaeh is ‘worm food,’ she’s dead because I failed as a father, or that she was a willing slut at a drunken orgy that I knowingly allowed her to attend," he writes. "I also have that death threat from last August. Apparently the case is still open and active, whatever that means. They haven’t killed me yet thankfully."

But Canning also feels that his advocacy has helped the public, that Rehtaeh's struggles to which many Canadians can relate. Many have reached out to him, he said. "They’ve reached out for help because of her; some were suicidal, others victims of sexual assault and/or abuse. They feel a sense of strength and have tried to turn tragedy into victory."

What made Parsons's death even more devastating is that it came as part of a series of teenage suicides across the country. British Columbia's Amanda Todd took her own life the previous year after being harassed and threatened online, Jamie Hubley committed suicide in 2011 after being tormented mercilessly at school. Saskatchewan's Todd Loik's death followed last year.

The issue of online bullying had been growing for years as the prevalence of social media has grown, but there was no force urging awareness or prompting intervention. Parson’s death, and the campaign that followed, has led to a higher level of awareness.

In Ottawa, the federal Conservative government passed the Online Crime Act under the auspices of combating future cyberbullying. Some, however, contend the law does more to gives authorities wider ranging power to investigate terrorism and organized crime, and more leeway when devling into personal online information.

Nova Scotia passed its own laws after launching a taskforce to look into the societal factors behind Parsons’ death. The Cyber-safety Act established a online investigation unit and a process with which people can seek protection from online bullies.

Rehtaeh’s face, her story and her tragedy have given the issue a tangible keystone – something parents and teachers can point to when discussing the cost of online harassment. It forced governments to act, or at least understand, what was happening online.

As Canning notes, his daughter’s death has, at the very least, prompted a conversation about mental health and online harassment.

“Canadians and the world have shown restored my faith into believing something better is possible. New laws are on the books or have already passed to protect victims in Canada, young and old. Rehtaeh would be proud of us,” he said.

“The silent Rehtaeh’s out there deserve no less.”