Justice for Rehteah

I mentioned this story briefly in passing on Tuesday, but an atrocity has occurred in Nova Scotia (trigger warning for suicide):

Rehtaeh Parsons had a goofy sense of humour and loved playing with her little sisters. She wore glasses, had long, dark hair and was a straight-A student whose favourite subject was science. On Sunday night, the 17-year-old’s family took her off life-support. Three days earlier, on Thursday night, she hanged herself in the bathroom.

Suicide of a young person is always tragic (of course I would be remiss if I failed to point out that suicide rates are highest among Canada’s Aboriginal youth, and highest in the world among Inuit youth), but in this case the details are particularly gruesome (trigger warning for pretty much everything):

It was 17 months before that when “the person Rehtaeh once was all changed,” her mother wrote Monday on a Facebook memorial page. “She went with a friend to another’s home. In that home, she was raped by four young boys,” wrote Leah Parsons. “One of those boys took a photo of her being raped and decided it would be fun to distribute the photo to everyone in Rehtaeh’s school and community, where it quickly went viral.”


After Rehtaeh left her school, other kids were relentless. “People texted her all the time, saying ‘Will you have sex with me?’” she remembered. “Girls texting, saying ‘You’re such a slut.’” But then there is the question of how the adults handled the alleged sexual assault that Rehtaeh described to her mother. The RCMP investigation took a year, said Parsons.


Parsons said she was unhappy with what she saw of the investigation. “They didn’t even interview the boys until much, much later. To me, I’d think you’d get the boys right away, separate them.” When it came to the photo or photos taken that night, “nothing was done about that because they couldn’t prove who had pressed the photo button on the phone,” she said. She was told that the distribution of the photos is “not really a criminal issue, it’s more of a community issue,” she said.

The suicide is a tragedy. The rape is an absolutely revolting crime. But the community response and the apparent lack of a thorough investigation by the RCMP defies description. As is the case in Steubenville, the complicity for Rehtaeh’s death reaches far and wide, and an in-depth inquiry is needed to understand the full scope of what happened, so that steps can be taken to protect other children from suffering as Rehtaeh did before she died.

A few people have pressed social media and hacktivism into the fight:

A group reported to be the infamous hackers Anonymous says it will avenge the death of Rehtaeh Parsons, despite a plea from police urging people not to take justice into their own hands. The 17-year-old died Sunday she was taken off life-support, three days following her attempt to take her own life. Her mother, Leah Parsons, alleges Rehtaeh was raped by four boys who took photos of the incident, which she says sparked bullying and harassment.

No charges have been laid. The unidentified group said it has identified four boys connected to the case. “What we have learned is certainly appalling, but it wasn’t the act of rape that shocked us. It was the behavior of the adults in Rehtaeh’s life that we found most disturbing,” wrote the group in a release sent out Thursday morning.


Anonymous is calling for people to hold a peaceful demonstration outside police headquarters to demand justice this weekend.

The first thing I’ve got to point out is how depressing it is that the national broadcaster cannot figure out how to report on Anonymous. They are not a group of “infamous hackers” – they’re anyone with an internet connection who are interested in this case. There could be 2 of them or 200,000, depending on the particular issue. It’s not exactly complicated.

The second thing to say is that I have serious misgivings about unaccountable vigilante groups getting involved in legal matters. I am therefore extremely relieved that Anonymous has chosen to specifically advocate for public protest, and is implicating the whole community in the crime rather than just the individual rapists. This is a level of maturity and forebearance that I am not accustomed to seeing from netizens, so I am encouraged by this.

The third thing to point out is that there is a Change.org petition trying to build public pressure for a thorough investigation:

After Rehtaeh’s rape, the RCMP investigated for a year but said there was not enough evidence to lay charges.

How is this possible?Everyone knows what happened. Everyone knows about the photos. Everyone knows she was 15 when those photos were taken. Everyone saw her being bullied and shamed at school. How can police say they didn’t have the evidence they needed to pursue charges? Do we not have laws that cover this kind of abuse, from photo-sharing to cyberbullying?

Nova Scotia’s Justice Minister Ross Landry must call an independent inquiry into this situation. The Minister must find out if the police ran this investigation properly and determine if there is important evidence that was not taken into account when they decided to close this case.

Please sign it if you feel so moved (I have).

The fourth thing that I wish to reiterate is that, while it takes nothing away from the tragedy of Rehtaeh’s death, these tragedies happen with far more alarming frequencies in Aboriginal communities, but they do not see an equivalent outpouring of consternation and sympathy. I hope that we do not lose the will to push for positive social change to investigate these cases and to protect all our children.

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  1. hjhornbeck says

    Signed! Thanks for including the Aboriginal angle too, Crommunist, more people need to be made aware of this.

  2. says

    It’s like Rahtaeh’s dad said:

    My daughter wasn’t bullied to death, she was disappointed to death.

    From his blog post, reproduced at HuffPo. Obvious warning: it’s a pretty crushing read.

  3. says

    Two thoughts:

    (1) The case of Rahtaeh is yet another data point which dispels the notion that there a/the ‘rape culture’ does not exist and/or is not harmful.

    (2) Teen suicides are an awful tragedy and it’s a shame that Canadian Aboriginal and Inuit suicides are likely ignored, downplayed, or written off by so many ethno-normative Canadians.

    Also, petitition at Change.org duly signed.

  4. Esteleth, the most colossal nerd on Pharyngula says

    And it has happened again, this time in California. Audrie Pott was fifteen.

    Part of me hopes this is newfound attention is part of a societal wave of change. Part of me knows better.

  5. Holms says

    A group reported to be the infamous hackers Anonymous…

    It always amazes me just how clueless ‘traditional’ news outlets are with regard to the internet and ‘Anonymous’ in particular. I can understand that they don’t frequent 4chan, but how the hell is there not a single person with an ounce of internet savvy on any channel ever?

    But more on point, signed.

  6. PatrickG says

    @ Esteleth:

    Part of me hopes this is newfound attention is part of a societal wave of change. Part of me knows better.

    I’m clinging to optimism.

    I mean, it’s not like this shit wasn’t happening before. If anything, I hope some media outlets are realizing they only have to roll out of bed to find truly horrific and gruesome stories to report on. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll move beyond “isolated incident” coverage.

    I almost expect to see various bloggers at FTB simply doing a “round up” of major news outlets breaking these stories, instead of posting about one at a time. Which, of course, is horrifying for obvious reasons, but that’s my so-not-shiny silver lining here…. people are actually talking about this now. Again, it’s not like this is a new phenomenon — it’s just getting more play due to social media, and getting a lot harder to ignore/hand-wave away. I just hope it lasts.

    And because I can’t express optimism without simultaneously expressing extreme cynicism…. these stories get lots of page views, and that’s why people blog do journalism these days, right? Right?

  7. PatrickG says

    Oh, and signed, though I’ll say nothing gets my cynicism roaring more than visiting change.org. 😛

  8. joe_k says

    “One of those boys took a photo of her being raped and decided it would be fun to distribute the photo to everyone in Rehtaeh’s school and community”

    ‘the distribution of the photos is “not really a criminal issue, it’s more of a community issue,”’

    Sorry, is Canadian law different from UK law on this point? In what concievable universe is distributing sexually explicit photographs of a *minor*, without their consent (which they legally could not give anyway) not a criminal issue? In the UK at least the person whose phone it was taken on would be guilty of possession and distribution of child pornography.

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