The sombre skies reflected the mood of a city and province as family, friends and politicians gathered at a north end church in Halifax for the funeral of bullied Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons.
“Love was a prominent word,” St. Mark’s Anglican Church Minister John Morrell said Saturday about the nearly 90-minute service for the 17-year-old who killed herself. “It just seems hard to think that someone so well-liked and so well-loved could have that sense of darkness and depression in her soul to do what she did.”
Rev. Morrell said that Rehtaeh was as a compassionate young woman, who loved all creatures great and small. She would move a worm from the sidewalk onto the grass so it wouldn’t get squished. He mentioned that on another occasion, she comforted a dying rat by wrapping it in her sweater.
The 17-year-old teen died Sunday, nearly three days after a suicide attempt. A Facebook tribute posted by her mother, Leah Parsons, revealed a dark and troubling story of a series of incidents that she believes led her daughter’s death.
Rehtaeh was allegedly raped by four boys at a party in November 2011. Pictures of the assault, taken on a cell phone, began circulating throughout her Cole Harbour high school and community several days later. No one was ever charged and the school provided no help, according to her mother.
On Friday, the RCMP, under intense public pressure to act, announced it had reopened Rehtaeh’s case after receiving new and credible information. The hacker website Anonymous was threatening to reveal the names of the four boys allegedly involved in the incident.
A lone bagpiper played outside the church in the rain as more than 100 hundred mourners, teenagers dressed in jeans and ball caps, transit workers who work with her stepdad, Jason Barnes and military officers (her father, Glen Canning, had been in the military) entered the church.
Built in 1921, St. Mark’s has seen much better days. The steeple is peeling, the window frames look like they are rotting. Steve Beeler, a member of the parish council, says that like any churches, St. Mark’s is suffering from a declining congregation. It can hold as many as 540 parishioners, but only about 70 regularly show up on a Sunday.
This was the church that Rehtaeh’s late grandparents, Anne and Ron Parsons, had attended – and her grandfather had, for a time, been a minister there. Rev. Morrell said that Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s mother, had requested several hymns, ones that are usually sung at funerals of elderly people.
“But [they] had very fond memories for the family to have those in there because of the previous losses they have had [and] in knowing that this daughter is now gone to be with her grandparents,” the minister said.
Her tragic story has reverberated throughout the country – and around the world. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has weighed in, saying bullying carries a connotation of kids misbehaving – but in some cases it is simply criminal activity.
Social media has played a big role in this case. In his eulogy, Rev. Morrell said that he has never presided over a funeral of someone so young. He blamed social media for contributing to “Rehtaeh’s depression and death.”
Later, he told reporters that this is a very “sexualized society.” In his eulogy, he asked why “young men feel that young girls are but objects for their sexual fantasies and pleasure?”
Although social media may have caused Rehtaeh so much damage, he said it was used successfully by her parents – unintentionally, perhaps – to get the word out and wake up politicians to act.
Neither of her parents spoke at the funeral, although a relative read a letter from Rehtaeh’s father.
Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter attended the funeral service Saturday. His government was initially criticized how it appeared to dismiss the case. But the Premier has now appointed his Status of Women Minister, Marilyn More, to oversee four government departments to look into Rehtaeh’s death. She also attended the service.
“I came to this service today first and foremost as a father trying to imagine what kind of incredible and unfathomable grief could be visited upon a family,” Mr. Dexter said. “And to try to be very supportive in this very, very difficult time.”
He also thanked Nova Scotians for letting the police handle the case as there have been concerns about vigilante justice against the boys.
“I am thankful that they have not taken into their own hands what properly belongs in the hands of the justice system,” the Premier said. “Violence is not an answer to these questions that are raised by things like this.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that a letter from Rehtaeh's mother was read during the service.