One week after the high-profile death of a British Columbia teen, MPs are grappling with the question of what role the federal government should have in tackling the scourge of bullying in schools and on social-media websites.
Amanda Todd, 15, killed herself several weeks after she posted a YouTube video describing the relentless bullying she had endured. Her death prompted vigils in cities across Canada and renewed calls for school boards and politicians to be more proactive in their efforts to keep young people safe.
The debate in Ottawa centres on whether MPs should create a national anti-bullying strategy to address the problem – or if the federal government should focus its efforts on funding federal departments and local groups to deal with the issue themselves.
NDP MP Dany Morin asked the House of Commons on Monday to study different types of bullying, including the growing problem of cyberbullying, and share best practices with Canadians as part of a national strategy.
“It’s a nationwide problem which is only growing,” Mr. Morin said. “Provinces have good initiatives, school boards are doing good work on the ground. Where’s the federal government on this file?”
Conservative MP Candice Bergen, who is parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Safety, said she believes it’s everyone’s responsibility to try to prevent another death like Amanda’s. But she suggested the federal government is ill-equipped to give advice to those working on the issue at a local level.
“Communities and schools at the local level are in the best position to identify the risk factors in their local community,” she said. “As well, they are in the best position to identify what their vulnerable children and teens have to deal with and what the solutions are.”
Brenda Morrison, who teaches criminology at Simon Fraser University and directs the school’s Centre for Restorative Justice, said she thinks Canada would benefit from following the examples of Norway and Australia, two countries that have developed national strategies on bullying.
“We know from international research that countries that have a national framework have lower rates of bullying,” she said.
Dr. Morrison said good national strategies focus on fostering safe schools – where bullying is just one of the issues administrators and teachers are trying to address.
Liberal MP Hedy Fry called Mr. Morin’s motion “worthwhile,” but said she believes more concrete action is needed to stop bullies. Ms. Fry introduced a bill last year that would make cyberbullying an offence under the Criminal Code.
“Bullying used to be limited to school,” she said on Monday. “But bullying has changed with the rise of electronic media, we now know that bullying follows you everywhere.”
Mr. Morin said he was bullied himself between the ages of 10 and 15, and he believes the torment would have been even worse if Facebook, Twitter and other social-media sites had existed at that time.
He found it difficult to motivate himself to go to school each day, where he faced bullies who ripped his clothes and taunted him with homophobic slurs, he said.
“I was just trying to find out who I was in life. I was not comfortable – no, I was afraid,” he said. “I was afraid to tell adults about what I was living [through] because I just didn’t want to put the focus on my sexual orientation.”
Mr. Morin, 26, is reluctant to speak in detail about his personal experiences, saying he doesn’t want to put too much emphasis on himself or prioritize one type of bullying over another. While he was targeted because of his perceived sexual orientation, other kids face taunts because of their weight, skin colour, religion or any other aspect that makes them different, he said.
He said he doesn’t believe politicians need to choose between different initiatives, noting that his motion calls for the government to support local groups while MPs work on a national strategy. And if that motion is adopted, he said he hopes the strategy will focus on prevention rather than criminalization.
“It’s impossible to look back on a particular case, whether it is me or Amanda Todd, and ask what have we done wrong. It’s nobody’s fault. But we need to take this nationwide problem very seriously in Canada because it is very tragic and we need to save lives.”