Four months have passed since the death of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons and the teen’s family has received some good news on the sombre anniversary.
A Cyber-Safety Act tabled months ago took effect Wednesday, putting some teeth behind the provincial government’s promises to address cyberbullying.
“It’s good now that there’s some guidelines. There’s a bit of a mandate there and there’s a law too, so that you can hold cyberbullies accountable,” says Rehtaeh’s father, Glenn Canning.
Rehtaeh’s family says she was raped by four boys when she was 15 and subsequently bullied after a photo of the alleged incident was passed around her school.
The teen was taken off life support in April following a suicide attempt at her home.
Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry introduced the Cyber-Safety Act three weeks after her death.
Canning says he has seen firsthand how damaging cyberbullying can be.
“The cellphones in some kids’ hands might as well be a handgun,” says Canning. “They’re using them to torment them, to terrorize them, and in a lot of cases now, just too many cases, they’re doing this until the kid is actually dead.”
Canning says his own grieving has been tainted by online threats; bullies have sent anonymous message to both Canning and Rehtaeh’s mother, Leah Parsons, online.
“Just the most disgusting comments you could ever have,” says Canning. “But it’s nice to know now we can have a system where we can go after these people.”
Under the Cyber-Safety Act, people can apply for a protection order that could place restrictions on cyberbullies and help identify them.
If the bully breaches the protection order, they could face up to six months in jail or a fine of up to $5,000.
Victims can also sue cyberbullies for compensation under the act and, if the cyberbully is a minor, his or her parents could be held accountable.
“As far as I know, this is the most far-reaching legislation in Canada at the moment,” says Wayne MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University and chair of the province’s cyberbullying task force.
MacKay also says the Cyber-Safety Act is in line with the task force’s recommendations.
“Which is to say, take cyberbullying very seriously, have some real consequences when it happens, and again, not just legal responses, which this is about, but also prevention and also education.”
The act also allows for the creation of an investigative unit consisting of five people dedicated to pursuing and penalizing cyberbullies, whether they're adults or children.
Landry says the unit, which is the first of its kind in Canada, will be running in September.
With files from CTV Atlantic's Sarah Plowman and The Canadian Press