Stricter cyberbullying legislation is now in place in Nova Scotia, giving victims the ability to sue alleged cyberbullies.
The protections for victims of cyberbullying are part of the new Cyber-Safety Act, implemented by Justice Minister Ross Landry on Wednesday, aimed at protecting victims and holding bullies responsible.
If alleged cyberbullies are minors, the new legislation allows victims to hold the bully’s parents responsible.
The legislation allows victims to apply for protection orders to place restrictions on, or identify, the cyberbully.
"Too many young people and their families are being hurt by cyberbullies. I committed to families that the province would work with them to better protect our children and young people. Court orders, and the ability to sue, are more tools that help put a stop to this destructive behaviour," said Landry in a news release.
"This sends a clear message, cyberbullying is a serious act with serious consequences. Think before you text."
The legislation was announced nearly three weeks after the death of Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old girl from Cole Harbour, N.S.
According to Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh's mother, four boys sexually assaulted her daughter when she was 15. Rehtaeh was then said to have been mocked by classmates, enduring relentless harassment and humiliation after a photo of the attack was circulated at school and on social media.
On April 7, Rehtaeh was taken off life support after attempting to take her own life a few days earlier.
Rehtaeh's father reacts to legislation
Glen Canning, Rehtaeh's father, called the legislation "a step in the right direction." He said he believes legislation such as this could have helped his daughter.
"I think it would have made a huge difference, I really do," said Canning. "I think for the first two weeks after the incident happened with my daughter, there was a photo being passed around her school to dozens of people. It’s hard to believe that that could happen unopposed, it could happen without any consequences whatsoever and we really had no recourse at all.
"It was just constant and there was no consequences for anybody to something that just completely destroyed her, just completely destroyed her whole life. She never recovered from that. And the thing is, at the time, we did everything right. We went to the police, we went to the school, and it was just like everyone just shrugged it off."
He said he hopes these new rules will have teeth, "so that if a kid comes forward with some kind of cyberbullying again in the future, that there’s a little bit of enforcement behind it."
He said that bullying is dangerous and puts children at risk.
"There’s got to be something in place dealing with cyberbullying in kids because it could be a deadly thing, and it’s got to be treated like that — it’s got to be treated like a kid walking around with a handgun," said Canning.
Canning said he thinks that once the ball gets rolling on enforcement, societal changes will be seen.
"It’s going to be a big wake-up call. Once you get a few people in court, and being charged with cyberbullying crimes — or you’ve got some parents being brought up on charges of crimes their children committed — then you’re going to see people turn their heads and kind of take notice that you’re not hiding behind keyboards anymore," he said.
The legislation wasn't able to help his daughter, but maybe it can help other families from having to watch a child die, Canning said.
"I hope that a parent out there doesn’t have to go through what myself and Rehtaeh’s family and friends are going through right now. It’s just heartbreaking. Today is four months since she died."
Changes to Education Act
Also announced Wednesday were changes to the provincial Education Act, which will clarify the roles of principals when the issue affects schools. Principals now have a more clear responsibility to respond, even to incidents that occur off of school grounds and after school hours.
The CyberSCAN Unit, the first of its kind in Canada, is the final piece of the new Cyberbullying Act.
Roger Merrick, the unit's director, is hiring five investigators who will look into all complaints of cyberbullying, whether the victim is a minor or an adult. That unit is expected to be up and running next month.
"We've all been affected by cyberbullying, whether it has happened to us or someone we know or we've just seen it online," said Chantel O'Brien, a member of the province's Youth Advisory Council.
"These amendments will be a wake-up call to those who think they can hide behind a computer to avoid being held accountable. It's reassuring to see the government taking action to ensure youth can feel safe in their own homes."
Wayne MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and the chair of the province’s task force on cyberbullying, expressed the need for caution after the new legislation was first announced in April.
He said the legislation needs some finessing to ensure it works by including three components: education, changing the laws and preventing cyberbullying by teaching young people about how to be responsible online citizens.
"Any study looking at cyberbullying suggests you can't simply demonize the bullies and say they should be sent off to some island somewhere and they're a separate species," he said.
"Sometimes the bystanders become the bullies, sometimes the victims become the bullies, the line between all of it is quite complicated and that's one of the reasons in the report — and the government has followed through on some of this — we've stressed restorative approaches where possible."
The province has also committed to an independent review by out-of-province experts into the Public Prosecutions Service and police actions in the Rehtaeh Parsons case. The review will begin after the criminal investigation is complete.