Two provincial justice ministers are taking the case of bullied Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons to Ottawa to push for a new law that would punish people who distribute intimate images without consent for malicious or sexual purposes.
Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry and his Saskatchewan counterpart, Gordon Wyant, are meeting with federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson next week to ask for what they have described as an urgent change to the Criminal Code.
"This is a national problem. It requires a national solution," Mr. Wyant said Friday. "We need to accelerate this discussion."
The issue of cyberbulling has taken on heightened urgency after the death this month of Ms. Parsons, a 17-year-old resident of Cole Harbour.
"The Internet doesn't respect provincial boundaries. This could happen in Saskatchewan. It could happen in any province," Mr. Wyant said. "It's just regrettable that a situation like what happened in Nova Scotia has caused us to really give some serious thought to how urgent this really is."
Mr. Landry proposed the Criminal Code amendment to fulfill a promise he made to the Parsons family.
The two ministers are attending a meeting of federal, provincial and territorial justice officials in Ottawa on Tuesday and Wednesday, during which they will bring up the proposed amendment. It is expected that other provinces will support them.
Amending the Criminal Code is a federal responsibility.
Mr. Landry said Friday that the Prime Minister's recent comments about bullying have given the province hope that his government is willing to act. "I think there is motivation within the federal government to move some of this forward. They just need to know they have the support," he said.
Last week, Stephen Harper said the word "bullying" too often has the connotation of kids misbehaving when, in some circumstances, it is "simply criminal activity."
Ms. Parsons' family alleges that she was sexually assaulted by four boys at a party in November, 2011. A cellphone picture of the alleged assault was circulated around her school and community. She was also harassed online and, despite changing schools and seeking help, could not escape her tormentors and attempted suicide.
Reports of the incident reverberated across the country and around the world. It has provoked the Nova Scotia government into action on a number of fronts, including this proposal for new legislation.
In a meeting last week with Mr. Landry, Ms. Parsons' mother, Leah Parsons, and her partner, Jason Barnes, focused on the distribution of the picture as one of the most troubling aspects of the tragedy. They pressed for more action on that front.
"We really believe it was the picture that caused the final outcome," Mr. Barnes told The Globe and Mail last week. "That's not to say the assault had any less bearing on the case … [but] they took a conscious decision to send the picture and that's what really ruined Rehtaeh's life."
Mr. Landry said he is recommending that the offence "covers the printing, publishing, the distributing, the circulating, the selling, the advertising or making available, including a visual recording of an intimate image for a malicious or sexual purpose."
There are many challenges to such a law, however. For example, what constitutes an "intimate image"?
Dan MacRury, a Crown prosecutor who is Nova Scotia's representative on a national cybercrime working group, described it as an image showing "genitalia" and more than "just kissing."
Saskatchewan's Mr. Wyant said he expects further modifications on these sorts of details at next week's meeting. He noted that he played host to his provincial and territorial counterparts last October, when they discussed this issue. When he heard of the Parsons case, he said, he immediately wrote to Mr. Landry asking how his province could help.
Nick Bala, an expert on youth crime and a Queen's University law professor, said he is encouraged by this step but cautioned that any action taken needs to be "considered action."
"We need special protection and we have to recognize that bullying is different if you're in a high school, if you're a minor, if you're an adolescent both in psychological and social and economic terms," he said. "We're obviously concerned about suicide in general … but I think we are starting to recognize that adolescents are particularly vulnerable."
With a report from The Canadian Press