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Prime Minister, Parsons's family discuss bullying laws

The parents of Rehtaeh Parsons, Leah Parsons, second right, and Glen Canning, second left, listens as Minister of Justice Rob Nicholson speaks duirng a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. DAVE CHAN for The Globe and Mail

Dave Chan/Dave Chan

Rehtaeh Parsons's father says his family needed better tools to deal with the relentless bullying the Nova Scotia teenager faced, as justice ministers from across the country prepare to discuss concerns about the malicious distribution of intimate photos online.

Glen Canning met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Tuesday afternoon for a "heartfelt" discussion that included the possibility of new legislation aimed at those who distribute intimate images without consent. Ms. Parsons's mother, Leah Parsons, and both parents' partners were also in Ottawa for the meeting, which lasted close to 45 minutes.

Rehtaeh Parsons died on April 7, three days after she attempted suicide. Her family alleges that she was sexually assaulted by four boys in November, 2011, and that a photograph of the assault was distributed among her classmates. An investigation into the alleged assault was reopened this month after police said they received new information.

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Mr. Canning said his family knew Ms. Parsons was distressed and did everything they could to help her. "But at the end of the day, we just didn't have any tools."

Speaking with reporters after the family's meeting with the Prime Minister, Mr. Canning said a lot of people "with very big hearts" tried to help his daughter. "We respect that and we're very thankful for that. But for the way the laws are set up in Canada right now, there was absolutely nothing we could do to help our daughter but stand there and watch her die."

Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry said last week that he believes there are gaps in the Criminal Code that could be addressed with new legislation targeting anyone who distributes intimate photos for malicious or sexual reasons.

Mr. Canning did not comment directly on Mr. Landry's proposal, but suggested he would like to see legal reform. "I'm looking for someone who posts a picture of someone with the intention of completely destroying their life to be held accountable for doing that. And right now, they just weren't. And that's frustrating, that's very frustrating," he said. Mr. Harper met privately with Ms. Parsons's parents first, before their partners and federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson joined the discussion.

The Prime Minister also sat down with Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter in a separate meeting. Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Mr. Dexter said he believes there are gaps in the Criminal Code that should be addressed by new legislation, and that Mr. Harper seemed to understand his concerns.

He said those who transmit intimate images do so with the intent to hurt the person in the images, and that the problem should be dealt with through a combination of education and new legislation. "The fact of the matter is that the activities that gave rise to this particular tragedy are criminal activities, and they need to be seen that way," Mr. Dexter said.

The Premier declined to comment on the details of possible new legislation. "But I think the first thing to do is to build the sanction into the Criminal Code. To be very clear with people that this is not acceptable behaviour in the 21st century," he said.

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Brenda Cossman, a law professor at the University of Toronto, said new legislation has the potential to fill a gap because existing child pornography charges are unlikely to be the right tool in targeting teens who send explicit images of their peers to others.

On Wednesday, Mr. Nicholson will meet with his provincial and territorial counterparts, and they are expected to discuss the possibility of introducing new legislation to counter cyberbullying and the distribution of intimate photographs without consent.

A federal, provincial and territorial working group was tasked with looking into that issue last fall, after Amanda Todd, a Port Coquitlam teen who endured persistent online bullying, died by suicide. Mr. Nicholson is expected to suggest that the committee be given a deadline of June to deliver a legal opinion on the issue.

In the days after Ms. Parsons's death, Mr. Harper said some kinds of bullying should be treated as criminal behaviour.

"Bullying to me has a kind of connotation of kids misbehaving. What we are dealing with in some of these circumstances is simply criminal activity. It is youth criminal activity. It is sexual criminal activity. And it is often Internet criminal activity," he said at an event in Calgary this month.

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Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

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