Online outrage over ‘Canada’s Steubenville’

Claudine Zap
Claudine Zap
The Lookout

Outrage over a woman’s suicide after an alleged rape has spilled online. A petition to ask Canada’s minister of justice to review the case of Rehtaeh Parsons has already gathered over 88,000 signatures in just a few days.

Nova Scotia's minister of justice initially said he would not open an independent investigation. Now the department is looking for ways to review the case.

The incident involves the 17-year-old girl and an alleged sexual assault by four young men in November 2011.

Sherri Bain of Halifax, a friend of Rehtaeh’s mother, Leah Parsons, started the petition. She wrote on the website that the Nova Scotia high school student never recovered from the attack.

“Rehtaeh was destroyed by this ... She was called a slut. She was bullied. She faced depression.”

Abandoned by friends, even switching schools to start fresh, she eventually attempted suicide last Thursday. Rehtaeh was taken off life support and died on Sunday.

Rehtaeh’s mother noted on a Facebook page as a tribute to her daughter, “She was the victim being victimized over and over again.”

After a year-long investigation, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) did not press any charges. As Leah Parsons put it on Facebook, it came down to “'He said, she said.’”

At first, Ross Landry, Nova Scotia’s minister of justice, said he would not review the RCMP case. This prompted Bain to start her petition, and, in response to the signatures, Landry changed his position and now says he is open to hearing options to review the case.

In a statement, Landry noted, "This situation is tragic, I am deeply saddened—as I think are all Nova Scotians—by the death of this young woman. I know that law enforcement and the public prosecution service do their best, every day, to administer and enforce the law."

He added, "It's important that Nova Scotians have faith in the justice system and I am committed to exploring the mechanisms that exist to review the actions of all relevant authorities to ensure the system is always working to the best of its ability, in pursuit of justice."

Canada’s attorney general, Rob Nicholson, also put out a statement on the case. He wrote on Canada's Department of Justice website, "My heart goes out to the family of Rehtaeh Parsons as they cope with the tragic loss of their daughter. There is no greater loss anyone can face than that of their child."

He added, "While the administration of justice is a provincial matter, I am always open to hearing from my provincial counterparts on ways in which we can improve Canada's justice system.”

The shocking case unfortunately has a familiar ring: Some are calling it Canada’s Steubenville, the Ohio case that involved two football players who sexually assaulted a 16-year-old woman and then spread photos of her attack on Twitter.

Social media is also bringing together support for Rehtaeh. Comments on Facebook included, from Sandra Lambie, ”This should not have happened....where is the justice.”

Juliana Pizarro posted, “It is shocking how little we can trust our justice system. It is terrifying when you think what people can get away with ... We can only hope that those guilty will pay for what they did for the rest of their lives.”

When reached by phone, petition creator Sherri Bain told Yahoo News that she wants to see the minister of justice open an independent inquiry to the police investigation.

She hopes the growing number of signatures on her petition will pressure Landry into doing so.

Although she was heartened by the outpouring, Bain added, “I only wish that this kind of support was available when Rehtaeh was alive.”