Nova Scotia·Q&A

'It's disgraceful': Rehtaeh Parsons' father responds to Halifax cabbie acquittal

Glen Canning, a well-known advocate for sexual assault victims is speaking out after a Nova Scotia judge's recent decision to acquit a Halifax taxi driver of sexually assaulting an intoxicated passenger.

'It's so far gone right now. The system is just an absolute mess,' says Glen Canning

Sexual assault victims advocate Glen Canning is interviewed on CBC News Network about Judge Gregory Lenehan's controversial decision. (CBC)

A well-known advocate for sexual assault victims is speaking out after a Nova Scotia judge's recent decision to acquit a Halifax taxi driver of sexually assaulting an intoxicated passenger.

Glen Canning's teenage daughter Rehteah Parsons died four years ago after she told her parents she'd been raped at a party. She'd been drinking at the time. Halifax RCMP did not lay charges of sexual assault in her case.

Canning is calling for changes in the way Canada's criminal justice system approaches sexual assault allegations.

He was interviewed on CBC News Network about his reaction to the taxi driver trial, which has led to calls for the removal of Judge Gregory Lenehan.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

CBC: What is your reaction to what the judge had to say, particularly, "Clearly, a drunk can consent"? 

GC: I would like to sit here and say I'm surprised by it but I don't think it's something that is surprising. I think it's inevitable.

We have a system to address sexual violence in Canada where judges are not properly vetted. … I think this case, more than anything you'll ever see, highlights how broken our system can be in a few ways. 

In the first way, you can look at evidence that was produced here — where red-handed he [the taxi driver] was caught pulling up his pants by a police officer.

The other way you can see how the system is broken, to me, is that you start with a presumption of innocence for a perpetrator and that is rightfully so, that is a hallmark of our criminal justice system. But in doing so with sexual assault cases you also start off with the presumption there was consent. You don't do that with any other kind of crime. 

Judge Gregory Lenehan (seen here in 2009 as a Crown attorney) found Bassam Al-Rawi not guilty Wednesday following a two-day trial in Halifax provincial court. (CBC)

With sexual assaults you do this. And when you do this, you allow every single rape myth and stereotype to enter into a courtroom. So when he [Lenehan] passed by his ruling, you can see very clearly what those myths and stereotypes are. ... It's disgraceful.

And so many people will tell you now, there are so many advocates now saying, 'I just can't recommend that you go to police' because they're going to end up with this. They're going to end up with a judge like this, sitting behind a bench. And I really want to know, too, where all the politicians are in this case. Especially those politicians who are doing these appointments.

CBC: The law states clearly that if you are too drunk, you cannot give consent. So were you surprised from that point of view that a judge actually made this call? 

GC: It's illegal and he's saying it. He even said this in his ruling that a person who is intoxicated and unconscious can't consent.

This is the problem where you start saying that because he is innocent that she had to have consented.  You start at that starting point and then you try to wonder if she consented or not.

Rape has nothing to do with consent or not. Sexual violence has nothing to do with consent. This is not about sex. This is about no willing participant at all. And there's no reason to ever think that consent was ever an issue here in this case. None whatsoever.  

CBC: What do you think should happen? 

GC: I would hate to say it and would hate to be a naysayer or something like this but I think, it's so far gone right now, the system is just an absolute mess. I think we need to be in every school in this country, talking to young people about consent, sexual violence, healthy relationships and boundaries. 

I think that every day that goes by we are throwing more victims out there. For the criminal justice system, what should happen — I'm not going to sit here for a second and think this is about a lack of training. Training belongs in law school. It doesn't belong behind a bench with a provincial court judge or any other judge.

So I'm thinking the best thing we can do right now is looking at regressing sexual violence, wonder why we're letting myths and stereotypes to enter into courtrooms, hold politicians accountable and make sure our vetting process includes some kind of background.

We have no excuse not to do that. 

With files from CBC News Network