Three days after his daughter’s suicide, Rehtaeh Parsons’ father and professional writer, Glen Canning, published a post on his blog. “[Rehtaeh was] disappointed to death,” he wrote. “Disappointed in people she thought she could trust, her school, and the police.”
The post begins with 17 years worth of good things—Parsons love of animals, a box he planned to give her full of childhood crafts—before Canning recounts the heartbreak his daughter felt the last 18 months of her life. The Nova Scotia family says that Parsons was raped, at 15, by four boys. Pictures of the gang rape circulated social media sites, the teen received text messages from strangers asking for sex, and was bullied even after changing schools. The authorities said there was not enough evidence to charge the boys. Only after she killed herself, has the case been reopened.
“Rehtaeh Parsons thought the worst outcome for her case would be no charges against the men who raped her but we all know better. The worst thing that could happen would be charges,” Canning added, directly addressing the Justice Minister of Nova Scotia. “That they would be found guilty, and that Rehtaeh would sit on a court bench and listen in utter disbelief as they were given parole, or a suspended sentence, or community service. All for completely destroying her life while they laughed.”
Unfortunately, Canning’s not exaggerating the possiblity of light punishment. “Nova Scotia has the highest rate of sexual assault and some of the lowest charge, conviction and sentencing rates in Canada,” Liberal MLA Kelly Regan told the legislature April 9. The rest of Canada isn’t so great, either. Consider this: two years ago Kenneth Rhodes served no jail time after he raped a woman because a Manitoba judge said the victim’s wardrobe—a tube top—suggested, “Sex was in the air.” With such bleak facts and the added confusion to an already life-altering situation, it is no wonder only 10 per cent of sexual assaults against women are reported.
Oshawa-based Luke’s Place is the only Canadian support centre for abused women and their family going through the court system of its kind. Founded in September 2003, the centre helps victims connect with emergency shelter, lawyers and other social services. Its staff also offers help with court paperwork, guidance through the court system, counselling, information resources and provides someone to attend court with the abused.
In addition to such on-the-ground work, the organization also brings public awareness to the issue of violence against women. This includes sexual, physical, psychological and economical abuse. Their website provides six Ontario-based research reports on over 132 abused women and their experiences in the courtroom. In the reports, women detail any combination of: feeling threatened, fearing retaliation, not being able to find representation, reliving abuse, and not being able to afford court expenses.
Many also said they were frustrated with court policy interfering with their cases—such as the sparse contact between family and criminal court. In one example, a man was sentenced to a month in prison for strangling his partner; this information was not relayed to the family court responsible for determining child custody. Sixty-two per cent of women said they wished judges and lawyers had a better understanding of the impact of such violence.
In many ways, it seems justice comes down to money. Women make up the majority of lone parent families and have an average annual income of $30,000. Legal Aid will not be rewarded until all assets are sold and savings are spent. Even then, Legal Aid can run out, and legal bullying can extend the process. Examples of this include: when the accused brings forward motions or appeals even when it’s likely they won’t be successful, or when the accused changes lawyers just to extend the court process—causing victims more pain.
If the judicial system is so intimidating for victims, important case evidence can not be brought to light, restricting any true justice.