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House of Commons urged to enact new cyberbullying law before its summer break

Protesters march near Halifax Regional Police headquarters to draw attention to the death of Rehtaeh Parsons. The girl’s family says she ended her own life following months of bullying after she was allegedly sexually assaulted by four boys and a photo of the incident was distributed.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

New legislation targeting the distribution of intimate photos without permission should be pushed through the House of Commons before it breaks for the summer, Nova Scotia's Justice Minister says.

Ross Landry said he received universal support at Wednesday's meeting of federal, provincial and territorial justice ministers for his proposal to make it a criminal offence to share sexually explicit images of another person without that person's consent. The ministers' summit was initially aimed at discussing Ottawa's proposal to create a victims' bill of rights but also addressed concerns about cyberbullying and the possibility of new legislation.

The meeting came one day after Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with the family of Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old from Nova Scotia who died this month, three days after she attempted suicide. Ms. Parsons's family alleges that she was sexually assaulted when she was 15 and that photos of the incident were later shared with her classmates and friends, causing her distress.

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On Wednesday, justice ministers asked a federal, provincial and territorial working group on cybercrime to speed up its review of Canada's laws on distributing explicit photos. The group was first tasked with the review in October, after the death of Amanda Todd, a Port Coquitlam teen who endured persistent bullying related to a sexually explicit photo of herself that was posted online.

"Today, when I met with my counterparts, I recommended that we expedite the review of our laws by June and I was pleased to receive unanimous support," federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said in an e-mailed statement. "I look forward to receiving this report."

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said on Wednesday that the Criminal Code may need to be updated at times to address new realities and that the party would work with the government to deal with the issue before the House goes on break this summer.

Mr. Harper said on Wednesday that he agrees that laws may need to be changed, adding that police may also need new investigative tools to keep pace with rapid technological changes. "We absolutely must speak out against the notion that some people have that anything goes on the Internet. Something that is a crime is a crime if it happens on the Internet as well," Mr. Harper said in the House of Commons.

Speaking with reporters after his meeting with Mr. Harper on Tuesday, Ms. Parsons's father said he believes reforms are needed to address the problem of intimate photos being shared online. The Parsons family also met with Mr. Mulcair and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police on Wednesday.

Dan MacRury, Nova Scotia's representative on the cybercrime working group, said the province is proposing legislation that would include sentences that are similar to the penalties for distributing child pornography. Under current federal law, a summary conviction of distribution of child pornography results in a minimum six-month jail term.

The province is also suggesting that intimate photos be defined as images that depict genitalia, the anal region or breasts, and that the legislation would apply only to those who make or distribute the material – electronically or otherwise – without permission and for sexual or malicious reasons.

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Saskatchewan Justice Minister Gordon Wyant said provincial and territorial ministers agreed unanimously that reforms are needed, but said he was not prepared to comment on the specific details of any new legislation.

"We'll wait for the recommendation of the working group, but I think we're all in agreement that the potential penalties for any Criminal Code offences need to be commensurate with the potential harm that can come from this, and we've seen some of the harm that can come from this distribution of these images."

A spokesman for Ontario's Minister of Justice said the province has been concerned with non-consensual distribution of intimate photos for several years, and began asking the federal government to amend the Criminal Code in 2011.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

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