Rehtaeh Parsons, Dalhousie and the wait for justice in Nova Scotia

The Parsons case is closed and the Dalhousie dentistry scandal is fading—but the disturbing questions they raised have yet to be answered

Content image
Paul Darrow/Reuters
Paul Darrow/Reuters

The plight of Rehtaeh Parsons, the 17-year-old Nova Scotian who died after a suicide attempt in April 2013, and the saga of 13 male fourth-year Dalhousie University dentistry students who posted hateful, offensive comments about women on a private Facebook page share far more than the fact they occurred in the same province. Both expose how the Internet fosters and normalizes pernicious cultural attitudes toward women, including the clearly fashionable notion that drunk or drugged females are fair game. The two cases also reveal a still uncharted continuum between offline and online sexualized violence. Both touched a national nerve for different reasons, but share the fact that a clear resolution, let alone a sense of justice delivered, was not achieved in either.

Parsons was the Cole Harbour, N.S., high school student unwittingly captured by a cellphone at a November 2011 party at age 15; a picture from that night showed her bent over, drunk, vomiting out a window as a 16-year-old boy appears to be having sex with her while giving a jaunty thumbs up. After the image was posted online and several boys boasted about having sex with her, Parsons was tormented. A female friend messaged, “Sluts are not welcome in the school,” her father, Glen Canning, recently told Maclean’s. Rehtaeh told her mother, Leah Parsons, and then reported to police that she’d been sexually assaulted by several teenaged boys while drunk. No sexual assault charges were laid; police closed the case due to “insufficient evidence” (the boys said the sex was consensual). After Parsons’s death, criminal charges related to making and distributing child pornography were laid against two teens; each pleaded guilty and would be sentenced to a year’s probation.

The adult Dalhousie dentistry students believed, naively as it turns out, that their posts referencing sexual assault of women (drugging with chloroform was a theme) were private on the “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” Facebook page. Their comments were neither original nor unique; campuses across North America are incubators for similar degrading missives about women. In one of their posts, the penis is described as “the tool used to wean and convert lesbians and virgins into useful, productive members of society” (a role defined as “chefs, housekeepers, babysitters, etc.”). Another invited votes for which classmates they wanted to “hate f–k;” another featured a photo of a woman in a bikini with the caption, “Bang until stress is relieved or unconscious.” No laws were broken, no criminal charges were laid.

That both cases occurred in Nova Scotia is not without resonance; they turned the province into Canada’s theatre of cause célèbre sexualized violence, one in which little appears to have been learned. Months after Parsons’s death, students at Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University participated in a frosh week “rape chant” glorifying non-consensual sex with underage girls. (Like Dalhousie, the school dealt with it in private and commissioned a task force.)

Such chants are all the more disturbing in a province that is home to the third-highest sexual assault rate in the country (Manitoba is the highest, followed by Saskatchewan), according to Statistics Canada: 69 per 100,000 people in 2013 compared to the national rate of 61. The percentage of acquittals in adult sexual assault cases in Nova Scotia is more than three times as high as that for all violent crimes (13 per cent in 2011-12, versus four per cent); more than 60 per cent of all sexual assault charges are withdrawn by the court.

These facts can’t be news to Canada’s Justice Minister Peter MacKay, MP for Central Nova, who has a constituency office a floor up from Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre, which provides sexual abuse response and education. The town, home to St. Francis Xavier University, has the province’s highest incidence of reported sexual assault. The province’s renowned friendliness, ironically, is part of the problem. Rachel Hurst, an associate professor of women’s studies at StFX, says: “Naming sexual violence, homophobia, and misogyny is not ‘nice,’ it’s not friendly, it’s not getting along.”

The books are now closed on both the Parsons and Dalhousie cases. The second young man charged with distributing child pornography was sentenced on Jan. 15. The members of the Facebook group remain nameless (with the exception of whistleblower Ryan Millet), and the saga ended publicly with a March 1 open letter from 29 fourth-year dentistry students, male and female. The men expressed “deep regret.” Everyone requested privacy.

The lack of clarity surrounding both cases has triggered a groundswell of activism in the province—a rising chorus that links academics, activists, sexual assault workers as well as parents, including Leah Parsons and Glen Canning. The failure of traditional systems to confront threatening online behaviour that targets individuals has triggered rogue vigilantism, seen this year when former Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling tracked down Twitter users who threatened to rape his college-bound daughter. He named the two worst offenders; one lost his job, the other was suspended from community college. Schilling sees no boundary between online and offline behaviour, as he told the New York Post: “People are saying, ‘Hey, Curt Schilling called out people on Twitter, and they got in trouble in real life,’ ” he said. “Twitter now is real life—Facebook, Instagram, all of it.”

Related reading: When Restorative Justice Isn’t Enough

Glen Canning expresses a similar sentiment when describing cyberbullying as merely the virulent extension of social attitudes. “Woman who lay sexual assault charges have to fight against a system that says, ‘What did you do? Why were you there? What were you thinking?’ ” he says. “Rehtaeh went to police and said she was raped. And instead of investigating the rape, they investigated her.” She volunteered her cellphone; her texts were combed over. Yet the police didn’t interview the boys until after Rehtaeh’s death; their phones were never seized.

Canning describes the Nova Scotia justice system as “the tail wagging the dog.” “The police look at it from a court perspective; they become judge and jury. Because Rehtaeh was unconscious, the thinking was: ‘She wouldn’t make a good witness. The case will be thrown out, why spend time investigating it? Why talk to the men?’ ”

The community’s reaction was not to believe Rehtaeh and to side with the boys, he says: “People said, ‘Oh those poor boys, look at what is going to happen to their lives because she said they raped her.’ ”

Parsons’s death also won Nova Scotia the label “Canada’s Steubenville,” a reference to the Ohio town where two star high school football players raped a drunk, underage female classmate in 2012; images of the assaults were distributed online. The comparison ends there: in Steubenville, the athletes were tried, convicted of rape and sent to juvenile detention. More crucially, their victim is alive.

It was painful, says Canning, to sit in court and see evidence documented, including images of Rehtaeh, clearly drunk, positioned to vomit out a window: “The court determined Rehtaeh did not give consent to the photo, yet accepted that she had given consent to sexual activity,” he says. “As her parents, we’re sitting there saying, ‘Could you explain why you’re not charging them with rape?’ ”

It’s a question asked by sexual assault counsellors: “It’s like, WTF?” says Margaret Mauger, executive director of the Colchester Sexual Assault Centre in Truro, N.S. “Someone is having sex with a young girl while she’s intoxicated, vomiting out a window. You’re telling me that’s consensual?”

Sexual assault cases are among the most difficult to try, says Steve Robertson, a lawyer with New Glasgow Legal Aid. “So often it’s just he-said-she-said.” The fact it is seen as such a serious charge affects outcomes, he says: “Juries are very careful, and judges too, of convicting.” Over the past 25 years, the percentage of his cases that deal with sexual assault remains unchanged, Robertson reports—between six and 18 a year.

Jackie Stevens, executive director of Halifax’s Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, points to a paradox, that the most common scenario for sexual assault—a known perpetrator in a social setting where alcohol is consumed—is also the most difficult to prosecute. “Alcohol creates grey areas legally.”

Yet under the law, the status of someone incapacitated by alcohol is black and white: they can’t give consent for sex. (At 15, Parsons was a year under the minimum age for consensual sex in Canada; a “close-in-age” provision, however, allows someone 14 or 15 to have sex with someone less than five years older.) The case exposed the confusion that surrounds consent. A girl who attended the party became a key witness: In a 2011 police interview, the girl, who dated at least one of the boys, answered “yes” when asked if she believed Parson had consented to sex. A later interview with the Halifax Chronicle Herald, however, suggested the girl didn’t understand that sexual assault can take place when someone is so drunk they’re unable to say “no” or put up resistance. She said she saw her friend “doing stuff” with two of the boys in a bedroom, yet she didn’t believe Rehtaeh could have been raped because she wasn’t fighting back and didn’t make enough noise to wake up the mother of one of the boys: “If you’re getting raped by four people, or two people, or one person even, you’re going to be screaming, you’re going to be yelling, you’re going to be crying.”

Andre Forget/QMI
Andre Forget/QMI

A National Post interview with one of the accused teens after his Jan. 15 sentencing raised other questions. Police estimated the boy consumed 11 shots of alcohol that night and Parsons eight. Yet the boy claimed she wasn’t drunk—and that he could read the situation: “Obviously, if I felt like if she didn’t want it, it wouldn’t have happened,” he said. After he and the other teen had sex with Rehtaeh, they negotiated who’d have the first go after she vomited. He said: “Like, ‘You go ahead,’ and he said, ‘You go ahead.’ ”

Parsons’s death triggered a flurry of reviews—into the response by police, schools and the health care system. It also coincided with new cyberbullying laws being tabled provincially and federally; initially Leah Parsons was told by police that the photo of her daughter was a “community” issue, not a legal one; two days after the province’s Cyber-safety Act passed into law in August 2013, charges were laid for making and distributing child pornography. Parsons’s case would also prove useful to Peter MacKay, who was lobbying for federal Bill C-13, which increases police powers to investigate online activities. Parsons’s parents met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and posed for photo ops with cabinet ministers, including MacKay.

Parsons’s legacy as Canada’s most famous cyberbullying victim was institutionalized judicially last January when Judge Gregory Lenehan sentenced the now-20-year-old man (his identity is protected by the Youth Criminal Justice Act). The Halifax judge called the photo “the domino” that “started the cascading events that led to [Parsons’s] death.” It, not the consensuality of the sex it depicted or the mindset that prompted the boys to take the image, was presented as the problem. The young man echoed the sentiment in his muted apology to the court: “I will not live with the guilt of someone passing away, but I will live with the guilt of sending the picture.”

Canning is troubled by the focus on cyberbullying: “What happened to Rehtaeh goes so far beyond cyberbullying,” he says. Oversimplification of the Parsons case also concerns Wayne MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie who chaired Nova Scotia’s task force on bullying and cyberbullying, established before Parsons’s death. “Rehtaeh’s story reflects systemic failure on many levels,” MacKay says, sitting in his office. “But the focus has been on cyberbullying and to a lesser extent suicide and not much on sexual assault.” Ignored is the fact that cyberbullying of women usually has a sexual component, he says, referring to Amanda Todd, the Port Coquitlam, B.C., teenager who committed suicide in 2012 after being harassed online.

The very term cyberbullying neutralizes an ever-present sexual component, says Truro, N.S.-based nurse Linda MacDonald, co-founder of the advocacy Persons Against Non-State Torture and a sexual assault counsellor: “It reduces behaviour to schoolground bullying, not the sexualized harassment and violence it often includes; it’s ‘boys will be boys.’ We need to call it cyberviolence.”

Shaheen Shariff, an associate professor at McGill University and author of Sexting and Cyberbullying: Defining the Line for Digitally Empowered Kids, sees the focus on cyberbullying deflecting attention from its underlying causes: “Cyberbullying has become an industry,” she says. “But nobody is looking at the fact it’s systemic and kids are only doing what they see around them. I’m not saying they don’t have responsibility, but how do we get them to think about what they are posting and what the implications are?”

Parsons’s death had offline consequences, seen in the surge of visits to sexual assault centres: “We saw more women coming forward after the immediate assault—many of them 12 to 15 years old,” says Avalon’s Stevens. “And a lot of women over 40 came forward to say what happened to Rehtaeh happened to them as teenagers but it wasn’t identified as sexual assault. If they did disclose, they were blamed—told, ‘This is what happens if you get drunk at a party.’ ”

The demand was so great that Nova Scotia responded in July 2013 with $1.1 million spread between 13 services. Still, those working in the field point to the province’s failure to confront sexual assault: erratic funding makes planning impossible; a shortage of trained sexual assault nurses means victims of assault can wait more than 24 hours for examination; a failure to provide services for male victims. The focus has been on bullying and cyberviolence, says Stevens: “Very little work on sexual violence is being done through schools or government.” Still, the province sees that it has a problem and is developing its first “sexual violence strategy” to respond to the needs of victims and survivors.

Canning believes the province is trying to address gaps exposed by his daughter’s case: “There’s been recognition we’ve failed young people, we’ve failed victims of sex crimes,” he says. “But most people don’t report. What does that tell you?” It should be difficult to convict a sex crime, he says. “But what other crime has two per cent of people going to jail? If two people went to prison out of 100 murders last year, who would say, ‘Yes, that’s how it should be?’ ”

The “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” Facebook page existed in a closed circuit for four years—and likely would never have been exposed had one of its members, Ryan Millet, not alerted a targeted female classmate who then complained, with others, to the university. Since the story broke in December, the private nature of the posts has fostered polarized debate. On one side, those who see the students exercising free speech, engaged in typical locker-room banter, with no intent to harm. On the other, outrage—manifest in petitions for the students’ expulsion—over the fact that men months away from being licensed to administer drugs were making cracks about drugging women.

Whether the posts were private or not was immaterial; the problem was the expression of hostile, aggressive attitudes toward women at a time of presumed gender equity (of the 46 students in the 2015 dentistry class, 21 are women). Problems within the dental school itself were also exposed: Millet revealed he met with the assistant dean in his second year on behalf of a female classmate who felt harassed by male peers; a female dentistry student told the CBC that an unnamed dentistry professor showed a video with Sports Illustrated swimsuit models to “wake up” male students. (He later apologized privately.)

Using sexuality as a way to demean women is a common tactic, says McGill’s Shariff: “The more accomplished and independent a female, the greater the backlash to put her down using sexuality.” The primary goal is to entertain peers, says Shariff: “To do that, the victim is dehumanized.”

Online behaviour escalates quickly, says Shariff: “The objective is to fit into peer group norms—even to surpass them because there’s so much noise on the Internet.” The result can be an online discourse that is much harsher than the “locker room” banter to which it’s often compared, a point made by Curt Schilling when discussing the vile remarks made about his daughter: “I’ve been in locker rooms, [and] a theatre of war, and never in my life have I ever thought those things about a woman, much less said them.” A similar point was made by Leah Parsons in her victim statement at the Jan. 15 sentencing. Her daughter was treated “as an object,” she told the young man: “And instead of helping her, you posed for a photo and shared it.”

Hilary Beaumont
Hilary Beaumont

In the face of the crisis, Dalhousie administration harnessed traditional academic tools. With the goal of creating a “culture of respect,” it formed a task force on “misogyny, sexism and homophobia in the faculty of dentistry” —and announced a “strategic initiative on diversity and inclusiveness.” Most of the Facebook group, as well as female and male dentistry students named or affected by the posts, took part in the university’s restorative justice process “aimed at remediating behaviour and addressing the harms.”

Still, the university has been widely criticized for a lack of transparency and accountability. University president Richard Florizone promised in a statement “an approach that is victim-centred,” though that has raised questions as to who the perceived victims are seen to be—the Facebook group or the women? The school delayed announcing the group’s suspension from clinical practice in January due to fears the male students faced “potential self-harm.” No similar concern was publicly voiced for the mental health of the female students.

Activist El Jones, an instructor at Acadia University, says the fallout from the posts in the wider community is profound: “Low-income women who rely on the clinic were horrified. They’re saying, ‘We don’t want those men touching us,’ ” she says, adding: “If this is how they talk about white, middle-class classmates, how do they talk about poor indigenous women who have lost teeth because they’re sex workers?” Provincial licensing bodies also view the Facebook group members as a potential risk; several called for the school to release names.

Others point to the university’s response demonstrating a lack of adequate procedures to confront the nuances of cyberthreats and violence. Françoise Baylis, a Dalhousie professor of ethics and a university senator, asks why the women even had to lodge a complaint: “This isn’t he-said-she said,” she says. “The evidence is there.” Julia Wright, a professor of English at the university, agrees: “If the university can’t do anything when they have screen grabs, is there any situation in which they can?”

The case was investigated under the school’s sexual harassment policy, even though direct harassment didn’t occur. The use of restorative justice mediation has also been seen as inadequate; Nova Scotia has a moratorium on it in criminal cases involving sexual violence.

Engaging in restorative justice mediation guarantees certain outcomes, says Baylis. One is privacy. “You go into a black box and come out of a black box,” with no official finding of sexual harassment, she says. “Of course, that’s why 12 of 13 members of the Facebook group signed on.” (The exception was Millet, the only member of the group to face the brunt of public attention. Two weeks after the other men settled anonymously, he joined mediation so he could graduate.) The other Facebook group members had their suspension from clinical duties lifted on March 2, a day after their public mea culpa.

The case also highlights evolving law as to what constitutes hate speech. In January, Halifax Regional Police announced no crime had been committed by the Facebook posts, which didn’t surprise Dalhousie law professor Wayne MacKay. At the time, misogyny wasn’t considered “hate speech” under the Criminal Code, he says, an exclusion he calls “mind-boggling.” Unlike race, religion or sexual orientation, sex or gender is not an “identifiable group,” despite the multitude of girls and women targeted for violence because of their sex. That changed when Bill C-13 came into effect last month.

Still, other mechanisms exist, says MacKay, who questions why Nova Scotia’s CyberScan investigative unit, founded in 2013, hasn’t gotten involved: “I think it should and I am surprised it hasn’t,” he says. Cyberbullying legislation references “intent,” he says: “But you reasonably ought to know if you put something on Facebook, it will be public.” He rejects arguments that the posts were victimless. They’re not, and wouldn’t have been even if they didn’t go public, says MacKay: “By degrading women, it encourages anyone with access to the site to think that behaviour is acceptable and normal.”

There’s been no public accountability, says Baylis, who sees revisionism in the male students’ statement in the March 1 letter that “from the beginning of this process in December we felt incredibly remorseful and took ownership of what we did (individually and collectively).” She asks, “What does it mean to take ownership when one is protected by anonymity?”

On campus, there’s now concern the “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” has become a cautionary tale of dangers posed by social media for students in professional programs. That takeaway echoes the Parsons case, where distributing pornographic photographs, not what the photographs represented, was identified as the problem. But the two cases also share a more complex truth: how online behaviour metastasizes beyond victims to damage families, communities and institutions in ways both widespread and often imperceptible.