Rehtaeh Parsons. via Facebook.
It’s been over two weeks since Rehtaeh Parsons died—the Canadian teenager took her own life after a photograph of her intoxicated, while allegedly being sexually assaulted, circulated around her high school—and no one has been arrested despite the RCMP’s “reopening” of her case. While it will be up to law enforcement to decide whether or not the boys suspected of raping Rehtaeh are guilty, the lack of any tangible action on the part of the RCMP has caused a growing conflict that’s being played out in public between those who believe the boys are guilty, and the boys’ supporters.
Just after Anonymous gave interviews to CBC’s The Current and myself—a public Facebook group called “Speak the Truth” emerged for the suspects’ supporters to rally against Anonymous. It was quickly taken down by the group’s creator, who wrote: “the police have asked that it be removed due to the fact that this is [sic] cause names to get leaked out and spread around.” After that, posters went up in the neighbourhood where Rehtaeh’s family lives, that read “Support Our Boys” and stated there are “two sides to the story.” A small group of “Support Our Boys” protestors also launched a counter-protest to a rally held by over 100 people outside of a Halifax police station, who were there to demand justice for Rehtaeh’s death.
So far the RCMP’s media sergeant assigned to this case has not responded to any of my requests for comment, but it doesn’t appear that there are any significant updates in the recently reopened investigation into Rehtaeh’s death. Anonymous is apparently unsatisfied with the lack of movement thus far, citing the leaders of Nova Scotia government’s “depths of cynicism and dangerous hypocrisy” as the reason for their recent press release, wherein they lay out precisely how they would like the RCMP inquiry to be structured.
While there have not been any arrests or significant developments that could lead to justice for Rehtaeh’s death—new legislation is being bandied about that “would make it illegal to distribute intimate images for a malicious or sexual purpose without consent.” That sounds like a good thing. But it also illuminates the fact that, when Rehtaeh’s picture was circling around her school community for nearly two years, nothing was done. For whatever reason there wasn’t anything worth taking action over when a photo—that many people believe depicts a rape—is constantly tormenting the 15-year-old girl who is pictured in it. At the very least, it’s child porn and it’s sexual harassment.
While that new, unsigned legislation (Nova Scotia’s premier Darrell Dexter is going to be “discussing” it with Harper this week) is absolutely too late to save Rehtaeh Parsons or Amanda Todd, it’s a bit alarming that the first part of the problem our lawmakers are attacking is the internet circulation of such illicit and damaging images. It should certainly be illegal to photograph someone in a compromising, sexual way without consent; and it should definitely be illegal to circulate that photograph as well. But where is the new legislation to prosecute whoever it was that continually blackmailed Amanda Todd from afar? Where is the effort to actually prosecute the boy who took the photo of Rehtaeh in the first place? And what about the guy in the picture who is being accused of raping her? On top of all that, what other institutional overhauls can we expect, after such a dramatic failure on the part of Nova Scotia’s law enforcement and Rehtaeh’s high school?
To further complicate matters, a recent report in the Chronicle Herald states that according to “people with direct knowledge of the incident,” a stabbing last month may have been a direct result of growing discontent in the community regarding a lack of justice for Rehtaeh. In that particular incident, one of instigators was a friend of Rehtaeh’s who ran into one of her alleged rapists and confronted him. He ended up getting stabbed, and according to the Chronicle Herald, Rehtaeh visited him in the hospital. A month later, she was dead. There were no arrests made in relation to that incident either.
Perhaps the RCMP is close to securing an arrest or four—I wouldn’t know because they’re not commenting on it. However, the longer this goes on without any type of justice, the more furious and ugly the public battle is going to get. Maclean’s recently pointed their finger at “social media bystanders” in Rehtaeh’s community who could have anonymously tipped off the RCMP to the illicit photograph that was circulating online. They even cite a Martin Luther King quote that Rehtaeh chillingly posted on her own Facebook page: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
But the RCMP did know about the photograph. Rehtaeh’s school said they didn’t intervene “because they didn’t want to interfere with the police investigation.” Before Anonymous and an outraged public pressured the RCMP to reopen the case, the RCMP’s position was that they “concluded there were no grounds to charge four boys over allegations they sexually assaulted Rehtaeh.” Justice Minister Landry, who has since backpedalled, also stated they had “no plans to order a review of the RCMP handling of the case.” And now here we are, with talks of some new legislation and a “reopened” investigation that has so far not yielded any results.
Nova Scotia’s RCMP needs to ask themselves what they have to do to ensure future cases like Rehtaeh’s don’t end up getting brushed aside, then reopened, then stalled indefinitely. If law enforcement and the government act fast enough, ask the right questions, and do the right things, they can help ensure that Rehtaeh Parsons’s case does not end up unresolved—and it will hopefully prevent future tragedies as well.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire