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Bullying can be a crime, PM says as Halifax vigil honours Rehtaeh Parsons

Several hundred people attend a community vigil to remember Rehtaeh Parsons at Victoria Park in Halifax on April 11, 2013. The 17-year-old died by suicide after months of bullying that followed an alleged sexual assault.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Stephen Harper is speaking out on the tragic death of a Nova Scotia teenager, saying bullying is more than kids acting up – in some cases it is criminal activity.

The Prime Minister lauded the Nova Scotia government for considering reopening the case surrounding the attempted suicide and death of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons.

"I think we've got to stop using just the term bullying to describe some of these things," Mr. Harper said Thursday. "Bullying to me has a kind of connotation of kids misbehaving. 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."

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Mr. Harper made his remarks in Calgary, where he helped open the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre, named for a former NHL player abused by his coach. The Parsons case, Mr. Harper said, hit close to home, noting that he and his wife, Laureen, have a teenage daughter.

"You are sickened seeing a story like this," he said.

The Prime Minister is not the only one: Rehtaeh's story continues to trigger an outpouring of concern not just in Canada but around the world. In Nova Scotia, Premier Darrell Dexter appointed his Status of Women Minister, Marilyn More, to oversee four departments – education, justice, community services and health – that will look into the teenager's death. Meanwhile, the provincial legislature adjourned two hours early Thursday so that the Premier and other politicians could attend a vigil in Rehtaeh's memory in a downtown Halifax park.

Rehtaeh died Sunday after being taken off life support. She attempted suicide three days earlier.

Her death came just months after she was allegedly raped by four boys in November, 2011. That incident was followed by the circulation of a graphic picture of her allegedly being assaulted. Although police investigated her complaint, no one was ever charged. Nor did the school offer help, according to her mother, Leah Parsons.

Rehtaeh left her home in Cole Harbour, her school and community, living for a time with her father, Glen Canning, in nearby Halifax. Recently, she moved back in with her mother. But she could not escape the persistent bullying online and in the community, where she was referred to as a "slut."

Her parents and friends believe that the circulation of the picture, and the fact that no one would listen to her, contributed to her death.

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"I don't think it really helped with the justice system not taking her case seriously," Kelsey Patterson, one of her friends, told The Globe and Mail Thursday.

There is concern, meanwhile, about possible vigilante justice directed toward the four boys involved in the alleged assault. Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, who spoke to Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry on Thursday, issued a statement imploring "Canadians not to take matters into their own hands."

"We need to treat youth crime seriously, and we must never forget the victims," Mr. Nicholson added. He noted that he and Mr. Landry spoke, too, about a federal-provincial-territorial working group on cyber-crime.

At the vigil, about 300 people gathered at Victoria Park, lit incense and candles and spoke about bullying, suicide prevention and violence against women. Rehtaeh's parents did not attend. Her cousin, Angela Parsons, gave an emotional speech on behalf of the family, urging an end to bullying. She noted the attention Rehtaeh's story has received.

"Glen and Leah have been touched by an outpouring of support and sympathy worldwide," he said. "They are comforted by this." Leah, she said, has been contacted by rape victims, who have told her their stories. She said the system "failed Rehtaeh at every turn."

In an interview on Thursday, Rehtaeh's 20-year-old boyfriend, Mike Wells, characterized her as "unique." He had to stop several times to compose himself. He spent time with Rehtaeh just a few hours before her suicide attempt.

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He thought things were going well with her. In fact, he was motivating her to go to school and to look for a job, he said. Rehtaeh's mother gave him one of her diaries.

"I got a piece of her with me," he said.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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About the Authors
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More

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