Halifax, Nova Scotia -- There is anguish and anger across the province of Nova Scotia following the death by suicide of teenager Rehtaeh Parsons on April 7. The 17-year-old hanged herself in the family home on April 4. Three days later, her parents consented to removing her from life support.
Rehtaeh Parsons death was provoked by institutional failure to deal with an alleged gang sexual assault she suffered in November 2011 at the hands of four teenage boys who were schoolmates at Cole Harbour District High School, in the Halifax region. The teens had been drinking alcohol in the parental home of one of the boys.
Adding to Parson’s humiliation, and a criminal act in its own right, was the posting of a photo of the assault to social media several days later by one of the alleged assailants. The photo played a crucial role in the later suicide because it provoked an endless string of taunts and threats against Parsons, sometimes by former schoolmates, oft times by strangers.
Concern over her story quickly became international because the institutional sexism that it revealed is a feature of capitalist society worldwide. Women are increasingly rising up against it -- from India and foreign-occupied Afghanistan to the United States. Police in California recently arrested three young men in connection to the suicide of Audrie Pott in September 2012. She, too, suffered a gang sexual assault.
Institutions failed the victim
Rehtaeh Parsons kept the news of the assault from her family. But some days later, as the heinous photo began circulating, she suffered a breakdown and broke the news to her mother. The two went to local police, a detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. (The RCMP is Canada’s federal police force. It contracts with seven provinces to provide their policing services, including Nova Scotia, as well as with many municipal governments.)
A police investigation was conducted by a combined squad of the RCMP and Halifax Regional Police. Nearly one year later, the prosecution office of the Nova Scotia Department of Justice decided there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute, neither for the assault nor for the dissemination of the photo and the harassment and threats that its posting provoked. It was later learned that the alleged assailants were only interviewed at the end of the investigation.
Although news of the attack had quickly circulated among students at Cole Harbour High, authorities at the school later claimed they knew nothing. They provided no support to the Parsons family nor any explanation or protection to the student body.
Parsons quickly changed schools, settling with relatives in a different part of the city. Eventually, she moved back into home. Cole Harbour High wouldn’t let her return, citing rules that prevent students who voluntarily transfer out of the school from returning, so she enrolled in a third high school.
Following Parsons’ death, no counselling was provided by school authorities at the schools she attended. One caller to a CBC Radio program compared this to circumstances in which a student dies in an auto or similar accident and grief counselors typically are called in to provide emotional support and counseling.
Officials defend their actions, then retreat
As news of the circumstances of Parsons’ death emerged, sharp questions began to be asked. The initial response of authorities was to circle the wagons. School authorities at Cole Harbour said their hands were tied from the get-go because a police investigation was underway, although the initial complaint to police was laid many days after the assault had become an open secret at the school.
Justice authorities reiterated their 2012 decision to not press charges. One RCMP spokesperson likened the evidence in the case to one of “he said, she said.”
Justice Minister Ross Landry backed his officials’ decision. He said on April 8, “I have confidence in their investigative experience, and I have no reason at this time to question that.” Premier Darrell Dexter stood by his minister.
That’s when the floodgates of public outrage opened up. Print and broadcast media were inundated with angry comments. On April 10, the International Day of Pink in opposition to bullying, Halifax public transit drivers ditched their uniforms to wear pink shirts. Tens of thousands eventually signed an online petition demanded a reopening of a criminal investigation. Calls are also widespread for a full inquiry into the actions of all the authorities involved.
Within 24 hours, the extraordinary outburst had obliged the minister to change his tune. He said he would review the decision not to prosecute. Several days after that, the RCMP and Halifax police announced that “new evidence” had come forward and they were reopening the investigation.
The calls for a full, public inquiry remain unanswered. On April 15, Premier Dexter said his government will proceed with an “independent review” of the actions of police and prosecutors, but only after the reopened criminal investigation is completed. The premier provided no other details of the suggested review.
Meanwhile, a review of the actions of education authorities was announced by the government on April 18 and will be conducted by two education experts from Ontario.
Citizen engagement forced the government’s hand
The shabby treatment of Rehtaeh Parsons by police, school and judicial authorities might never have become public were it not for her suicide. Even then, the criminal investigation was only reopened thanks to the initiatives of citizen activists. Several groups acting in the name of “Anonymous” were quickly able to track down the cyber trail of the photo as well as the names of the assailants originally named by Parsons. They threatened to release the names if authorities didn’t drop their stonewalling.
Further public anger and scorn was prompted by the ease with which journalists were able to obtain the essential facts of the case by simply talking to students at Cole Harbour High. Several large rallies have taken place in Halifax condemning the official inaction, including one in front of the headquarters of Halifax Police and the RCMP on April 14 that voiced a simple demand: “Do your job!”
The Parsons’ family’s assessment of the conduct of police, judicial and education authorities has been harsh and withering. Rehtaeh’s father, Glen Canning, wrote an extraordinary open letter, published in the April 10 Halifax Chronicle Herald, in which he declared, “My daughter wasn’t bullied to death, she was disappointed to death. Disappointed in people she thought she could trust, her school, and the police.”
Jason Barnes, Leah Parsons’ partner, declared, “No matter where her mother turned to try to get help for her, no matter where Rehtaeh tried to turn to get help, all she had was her family.”
“The justice system failed us completely.”
A school friend of Rehtaeh Parsons, Ashley Maclean, told the Globe and Mail that no one listens to young people “until you’re dead or half dead.”
Despite it all, Angella Parsons, a cousin to Rehtaeh, told journalists at the funeral in Halifax on April 13 that the family has been overwhelmed with “random acts of kindness from people who we don’t even know.” She calls that experience, “A true testament to the beauty of humanity.”
If the NDP government has been compelled to pull back, that’s not the case with some of the alleged assailants and their defenders. They have waged a public campaign asserting that what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons was her own doing. A Facebook page to that effect was created soon after news broke and was only taken down when police cautioned that it could lead to the inadvertent public release of the names of alleged assailants.
Posters defending “the boys” have appeared on lampposts in the city, including on the street where the Parsons live. They read, “Stay strong, support the boys.”
A glimpse of the intensity of the battle among the affected youths is reported in the Chronicle Herald of April 16. Police were called on March 10 when three friends of Parsons were assaulted by six youths, including several of those identified by her as assailants. The three friends were sprayed with an irritant and one was knifed.
Three young men who used to attend Cole Harbour High told the newspaper that the boy who appears in the notorious photo “was bragging about it a lot” and that many students at the school fear for their safety if they speak out against the assault.
A case of “cybercrime”?
Premier Darrell Dexter told CBC Radio’s The House on April 13 that he “doesn’t know” if education or justice officials were negligent in their duties. He was asked if “new laws” to combat cybercrime were needed and didn’t answer the question. But several days later, he began to echo his justice minister’s call for changes to the federal criminal code that would further define the definition of images whose distribution could be punishable by law.
“That would address the issue of imaging and that was the big concern about what happened a week ago,” says Landry.
But excessive attention to “cybercrime” would overlook the fact that laws already existed to punish the crimes committed against Rehtaeh Parsons and these laws were not prosecuted by authorities. Hence the call by protesters in Halifax on April 14 that police “Do your job.”
Valerie Steeves, professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, cautioned the Canadian Press on April 22, “When you look at extreme examples you may create bad law, especially when there are laws in place that could have been used to protect this child.” She says existing laws proscribe the distribution of the photo of Rehtaeh Parsons.
Some commentators are concerned about excessive focus in the Parsons case on “online culture.” According to Dr. Peter Jaffe, a professor at University of Western Ontario’s faculty of education and an expert in the study of family violence, the case “reflects a more profound problem about violence against women, and the extent to which we are willing to humiliate and denigrate them.” His views were reported in a Globe and Mail article on the subject.
Just one year ago, the Nova Scotia government and its department of education received a 104-page report into bullying and cyberbullying from a special task force they had commissioned. The task force was prompted by the tragic suicide of three teenagers in the province in 2011, reportedly provoked by bullying they suffered.
Titled, Respectful and Responsible Relationships: There’s No App for That, the report contained 85 recommendations aimed at creating respectful and responsible relations among students and staff in Nova Scotia schools, including in the face of changes that new communication technologies have brought.
The chairperson of the task force was Wayne Mackay, a professor of law at Dalhousie University. He has been sharply critical of several aspects of the conduct of education authorities in Parsons’ case. He says several key recommendations of the task force were not enacted as they should have been, including the obligation of school authorities to take action when violent or criminal outside of school grounds intrude upon in-school relations. Furthermore, said the report, police investigations of criminal events are no excuse for inaction by schools to protect the safety or mental health of students or staff.
According to Jackie Stevens of the Avalon Sexual Assault Center in Halifax, the Nova Scotia government has no overall strategy for combating sexual assault and it is underfunding the agencies like hers that carry the brunt of the societal response. She told CBC Radio on April 18 that the three sexual assault centers in the province have seen their already-inadequate resources stretched even further by women encouraged by the Parson’s story to come forward and seek help. The wait lists for counseling services were already months long.
The group has initiated an online petition calling on the government to provide emergency funding to expand sexual assault victim services. It has not received a reply to a letter it wrote last week on this subject to Premier Dexter and Halifax Mayor Mike Savage .
The fact that women in Nova Scotia have kept their experiences and anguish to themselves highlights a key problem in combating sexual assault, namely, the low rate of reporting of the crime. Elaine Craig of Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law told CBC Radio on April 19 that only an estimated ten percent of sexual assaults are reported to police, making it one of the lowest rates of criminal reporting. Additionally, once the ten per cent of victims enter into the legal system, cases drop away over time as victims become disappointed, fatigued or even intimidated.
Institutional, and deadly, sexism in Canada
The case of Rehtaeh Parsons reveals the sexism that is profoundly rooted in Canada’s class society and institutions. This may not be evident to many observers because capitalist politicians and other ideologues of Canada’s class society are working to keep attention deflected from this aspect of the case.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is among those trivializing the story by ignoring its women’s rights dimension. He is also using it to justify his government’s repressive “anti-crime” agenda.
“Bullying to me has a kind of connotation... of kids misbehaving,” he said in his one public declaration, on April 11. “What we are dealing with in some of these circumstances is simply criminal activity. It is youth criminal activity. It is sexual criminal activity. And it is often Internet criminal activity.”
Harper’s office has asked to meet with Leah Parsons on April 23. According to the Canadian Press, the sole purpose of the proposal is to discuss changes to the criminal code concerning the distribution of images on the internet.
But even a glimpse of the broader picture shows that Canada remains in the grip of a disturbing and institutionalized sexism in its policing and judicial agencies:
- There are hundreds of unsolved cases of missing and murdered women across the country. Most of these are Aboriginal. The federal government has refused calls for a judicial inquiry. Nine of the ten provincial governments plus all three northern territories government recently called on the government to change its mind.
- Many of the cases of missing women are in British Columbia. The 2006 trial of convicted serial killer Robert Pickton in Vancouver as well as the subsequent public inquiry revealed massive failings in the conduct of the RCMP and municipal police agencies in that investigation. Pickton’s killing spree went on for years.
- Human Rights Watch published a shocking report earlier this year on the conduct of the RCMP in northern British Columbia, accusing the force of deepgoing discrimination against women. The report’s allegations include criminal sexual violence or threats of violence by RCMP officers against women. Northern B.C. is the location of the “Highway of Tears,” so named for the string of unsolved disappearances of women along its route stretching back several decades.
- The RCMP is currently facing a class action lawsuit by dozens its own female officers for discrimination and sexual threats, coercion and assault by male constables and officers against their female colleagues.
- Canada’s prison system is also coming under intense fire for its treatment of women. Some of the latest focus is prompted by the disturbing case of Ashley Smith. She hung herself in her prison cell in 2007 while corrections officers looked on. She went into Canada’s prison gulag at the age of 14 for a minor offense and never emerged. The grisly details of her case are under intensive review in Ontario.
- Coincidentally, a recently published study concluded that prison staff in Canada do not receive adequate training in ethical and human rights values.
Sexism and violence against women is one of the hallmarks of modern class society. Its prevalence is fuelled by the vast commercialization of sex. And considering the conduct of capitalist political leaders on the world stage, including the wars and violence they incite and wage, it is also little wonder that insensitivity and bullying by youths should be a persistent societal problem. (This recent reference by Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick recently caught my eye: “I interviewed the British novelist Stephanie Merritt in Toronto recently. She writes historical fiction under the name S.J. Parris and was publicizing a fine new novel, Sacrilege. But I love her best for her 2008 memoir of depression, The Devil Within. A better book about the suffering of a bullied young girl has never been written.”)
The finest tribute that can be paid Rehtaeh Parsons and her family and friends is to redouble the struggle for a society of equality and respect to women.
Roger Annis lives in Vancouver B.C. Forty-five years ago, he attended Prince Andrew High School in Halifax-Dartmouth, the third and final high school attended by Rehtaeh Parsons. He can be reached at [email protected].
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