Trigger warning: This article contains discussion of rape, rape culture, suicide, and depression.
The Centre for Gender Advocacy’s “Another Word for Gender” series closed with an emotional keynote event on October 3 – a talk by Glen Canning, the father of Rehtaeh Parsons, about the failure of the justice system, and the forces that normalize sexual assault in Canada, including victim-blaming.
Canning told the audience of around 100 people in the Shatner Ballroom that it was his first time speaking in front of a large group of people, but that he wanted to share the story of his daughter.
Parsons’ case first gained media attention last year, following the teen’s suicide after aggressive and prolonged bullying in response to her sexual assault. In November 2011, Parsons was gang-raped after attending a house party. A cellphone photo of the rape was shared days later by students at her school across social media sites.
According to her father, the photo was taken by one of the rapists and was not only shared at her school but across her district.
“It was going everywhere, and everyone knew about it,” said Canning, adding, “She wasn’t just raped, she was humiliated and destroyed.”
Not long after the photo was shared with the community, Parsons and her family came forward to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to report the incident – which is where the victim-blaming began, Canning said.
“I think it is outrageous that this happened, I think it’s inexcusable for the police to bungle this case the way that they did, and they did it right from the start.”
The investigation went on for one year, with few updates given to the family and no arrests made. The case was declared closed in March 2012, without questioning or consulting any of the people who were involved with the allegations of sexual assault.
The police told her mother when the case was deemed closed that “there [were] mistakes made that night, and Rehtaeh made mistakes too.”
“They were essentially saying she shouldn’t have been drinking at that party, and to us that is just wrong. It didn’t matter what she did that night, no one had the right to rape her,” said Canning.
He noted that his daughter was heartbroken by the case being closed. “She felt she did the right thing by speaking up and it was used against her.”
Parsons, Canning revealed, turned to drugs and self-harm to cope with the pain and feelings of isolation spurred by the events. Eventually, Parsons and her father decided that she would seek medical treatment at a local hospital.
Canning also pointed to faults in the hospital system. “Taking her to that hospital was the biggest mistake of my life,” he said. “I think she learned nothing in that hospital that she could use to cope with the issues she was going through.”
“The hospital that she was admitted to treated her like a drug addict because [the drug treatment program] is the only program they offer teens that age,” he told the audience. “So you have to be a drug addict, you are not a sexual assault victim.”
Not long after she was admitted, Parsons was discharged. She committed suicide shortly thereafter. Canning believes that her time in the hospital made her worse off.
Shortly after her death, her mother posted a Facebook status regarding her suicide that quickly gained international media attention, with her parents receiving calls from CNN and MSNBC.
However, not all the attention was positive. A “Support the Boys” campaign started in the community, with people rallying around the assault suspects, declaring their innocence.
The group printed signs and went to the police system to protest, alleging that Parsons lied. They also created Facebook groups claiming that since the boys were “good-looking [and] cool guys, that she probably wanted her assault because they never would have committed the crime,” Canning explained to the audience.
The cyber-bullying continued even after Parsons’ death – Facebook groups were created with tormenting titles and photoshopped pictures mocking her suicide. Some of the content was sent to her family.
When Canning wrote a letter to Facebook to take down one of the groups, they responded that the group did not “violate their standards.”
Canning posted the message on his blog, where it was picked up by the hacktivist group Anonymous. Anonymous tracked down the Facebook group owners and shut down the groups.
Charges of creation and distribution of child pornography have now been laid against two of the boys. “[However] despite them sending it to hundreds of kids, who then sent it to hundreds of [other] kids, [those are] the only two charges they came up with in this entire thing.”
Canning is adamant that the police never investigated the sexual assault aspect of the crime. “For them to say they have no evidence to substantiate a charge of sexual assault is a blatant failure on the side of the police to do their job.”
“This is just wrong, this is a failure in a system here. Her school didn’t even call her once, the police never investigated her crime at all.”
Canning hopes that by talking about his daughter’s case, change will occur. He noted that the sexual assault centre he took his daughter to prior to her death is faced with wait times of several months and is desperately in need of funding. “[It is] inexcusable that this is happening in our community and people aren’t getting the help that they want.”
“We have a problem in our system in Nova Scotia with young people, because they don’t know what consent is, what healthy relationships are,” said Canning. “They don’t know what healthy sex means, they don’t know about respect or empathy or compassion.”
“I think there is a failure in investigating sexual assault in Canada, and hopefully by sharing our daughter’s case we can highlight that and we can try and fix it. We are not going to be able to do that though if we don’t admit it is broken.”
With files from Hannah Besseau.