Publication ban is pointless

Canning Parsons

Glen Canning (left) and Leah Parsons have fought to keep their daughter’s name alive.

One of the beauties of being a freelancer is that I don’t have to worry about consulting lawyers or publishers, I can just follow my gut and do what a journalist is supposed to do.

To paraphrase the Mr. Dooley character of American humorist Finley Peter Dunne: It’s the job of journalists to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

Sometimes, you get the opportunity to do both and when those opportunities arise, you must seize them. Yesterday, more than any other day, it was important to use Rehtaeh Parsons’ name.

The guilty plea of one of the accused was validation for her and her family. Any journalist with a sense of public good would recognize that you’d need to link yesterday’s development back to April 2013, when the whole world knew her name and the eyes of the world were on Nova Scotia because of the failure of our justice system to lay any charges.

There was a clear purpose to my post and I’m not content to wait for politicians to change the law. I’m going to point out its flaws, why it needs to be amended, and why it should not apply in this case. I also consulted with Rehtaeh Parsons’ parents – Leah Parsons and Glen Canning — and got a blessing from both of them to break the ban.

Also, reading the judge’s decision from May gave me confidence that it was a pretty safe path if I chose my steps carefully. I was not flouting it just for the sake of flouting it. Former colleague Stephen Kimber, a professor of journalism at King’s College, suggested in a Facebook discussion that “there’s a danger when we start violating bans because we believe it’s wrong in one particular instance.”

“What if another reporter decides to name an alleged rape victim, or a child abuse victim because they think it’s justified. Do we get to decide when the law applies and when it doesn’t? And, given that everyone already knows who the victim is in this case, is it really necessary to break the ban to make the argument it is wrong here, or to write in a way that makes the connections for the reader without specifically naming the victim?”

In this case, I take to heart the comments made by Judge Jamie Campbell when he wrote in his decision: “It’s a ban that everyone wants, just not in this case.”

To see Judge Campbell’s decision, click here.

Clearly, it’s a good law, but it just doesn’t work in this instance. A judge, our director of public prosecutions, and our Attorney General had an opportunity to fix that, but none took the opportunities available to them for various reasons. You say that “everyone” knows her name, but I think that only those closely connected to the case would make the crucial connection if not for the efforts of the victim’s parents — Glen Canning and Leah Parsons — who have been breaking the ban.

I’m not claiming the right for me or any other journalist to decide when the law applies and when it doesn’t. But remember, both of Rehtaeh’s parents opposed the ban and the Crown fought it, too. Also, when the Crown reviews a complaint — if there is one — they will consider the intent of Parliament in drafting the law, the wishes of the parents, and whether the public interest is served in prosecuting.

Precisely the things that I considered before writing the post.

Guilty plea in Rehtaeh Parsons case

rehtaeh parsons

Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide in April 2013. Her death helped spark a new police investigation.

A young man who took the picture used to shame and bully Rehtaeh Parsons has pleaded guilty to production of child pornography.

He admitted to taking the picture of another boy, a co-accused in the case, who was in the picture with Rehtaeh in November 2011 when he was 17 and Rehtaeh was 15. Neither of the accused, who were both under 18 at the time, can be named. Their identities are protected by the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Crown Attorney Alex Smith read an agreed statement of facts to Halifax Provincial Court Judge Greg Lenehan.

Smith describes the image which shows one boy, naked from the waist down, behind Rehtaeh and pressing his genital region up against her while giving a thumbs-up sign. Rehtaeh Parsons is naked from the waist down.

“At the time the photograph was taken, (one of the accused) was having sex with Rehtaeh Parsons as she was vomiting out the window,” Smith told the court.

The youth in court today faced charges of production and distribution of child pornography. The Crown dropped the charge of distribution.

Another boy, the one in the picture who is charged only with distribution of child pornography, is scheduled to go on trial in November.

There is also a publication ban on the identity of the victim, Rehtaeh Parsons, despite the opposition of the Crown Attorney and her parents. Four Nova Scotia media outlets fought the ban in May, but Judge Jamie Campbell said it was a statutory ban that he had to impose – even though it didn’t make sense because her name was already so well known. In reporting this story today, media outlets continue to observe the ban.

It is the law of the country and judges must do their duty and enforce the law passed by Parliament. That is why the judge cannot be faulted in this case.

This post respectfully disregards the publication ban because a greater public good is served by doing so.

There is a higher goal than upholding the law and that is justice; something that judges, especially those that practice judicial restraint, sometimes do not consider.

There is an oft-told story of a conversation between two great American jurists, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Learned Hand, who met for lunch one day.

As Holmes began to drive away, Hand implored him to “Do justice, sir, do justice!”

Holmes stopped and admonished his fellow judge with this retort: “That is not my job. It is my job to apply the law.”

In the absence of an activist judge, or an Attorney General or Director of Public Prosecutions willing to make a public pronouncement that no charges will be laid in this case, it is left to the media to wonder about the safety of violating the ban.

Henry David Thoreau, in his essay Civil Disobedience, encouraged people to disobey what he called “unjust laws.”

Thoreau wrote: “Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”

Let me be clear. It’s not that this law is unjust. It is that it is unjust in this case and should be ignored.

Clearly, this is an exception that Parliament did not think of when they passed the law and they need to amend it.

Lastly, there is a clause in the Youth Criminal Justice Act that allows for the parents of a victim to waive the privacy rights of their children. Glen Canning and Leah Parsons have done so in this case, but Judge Campbell chose not to accept that argument, saying that the Criminal Code provision wins the day – even though it doesn’t really make any sense in this case. See decision here.

Rehtaeh Parsons’ name brings power to any discussion about sexual consent, cyber-bullying, and suicide prevention. Her case prompted important legal reforms in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada. The federal government, which is working on passing Bill C-13 to counter cyber-bullying, is doing so partly because of what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons.

Most importantly, this change of plea needs to be connected to the case at a time when publication of her name was permitted.


Because of the way the police and the Public Prosecution Service handled the case. Initially, the police focussed their investigation — such as it was — on sexual assault after an incident in November 2011. They spent most of their early efforts investigating Rehtaeh and took a long time – several months – before interviewing the four teenage boys alleged to have raped her when she was extremely intoxicated.

The Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service reviewed the case, but didn’t lay charges because there wasn’t a strong enough likelihood of a conviction. It was dubbed a “he said, she said” case amid claims that Rehtaeh had made advances, or at least appeared willing earlier in the evening.

By the time the picture was taken, as the agreed statement of facts read into court today would indicate, Rehtaeh was not in any state to be consenting to sex.

Amazingly, the existence of a photograph of a minor engaged in a sexual act did not spark law enforcement professionals involved in the investigation to consider laying a charge of production and distribution of child pornography. Canning said police and school officials knew of the photo’s existence within a week of it being taken.

“They allowed this image to spread even knowing that this was child pornography. They knew who had it and who was doing it and there was nothing done to stop it,” he said. “Every time it was shared, it victimized Rehtaeh.”

The photo spread like wildfire through her community in a suburb of Halifax. Fellow students called Rehtaeh Parsons a slut and some total strangers texted her and asked her if she wanted to have sex with them. The bullying became too much so she switched schools and sought counselling. She claimed she was raped, but no charges were laid and this added to the grief. She struggled for months, but in April 2013, she committed suicide by hanging herself in the bathroom with a belt.

Her case attracted worldwide attention and even prompted the intervention of Anonymous, who started #OpJustice4Rehtaeh to get the police to reopen the case. The police reopened the case and, amid the furor, some people defended the four boys saying that the sex was consensual.

Within a few months, the police laid charges of production and distribution of child pornography against two of the four boys, but some claimed it was just a way to put an end to mounting public pressure.

Today’s guilty plea should put an end to those claims.

When Judge Greg Lenehan told the young man to meet with a probation officer and cooperate with them in the preparation of a pre-sentence report, he responded in a subdued voice. “Yes, sir.”

He is scheduled to return to court for sentencing on Nov. 13.

For Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s mother, nothing will ever bring her daughter back. But keeping her memory alive and using it to make some important changes, means a great deal to her.

“None of it is enough, but the fact that he’s pleading guilty is some consolation,” she said. “I do feel some solace in that she just wanted to be validated and she wanted people to know that this actually happened to her.”

Nova Scotia embraces red tide, elects Liberal government

New Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil

New Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil

Nova Scotia voters are strutting tonight like drunken revellers who feel like they are about to get lucky. I just hope that strut doesn’t turn into walk of shame in the next 4 years.

The Liberals have created high expectations, much like the NDP did in 2009, and they will be hard-pressed to meet them in this climate of cynicism. When only 56 per cent of voters turn out, that tells me that 44 per cent of the population thinks that there is so little difference between the parties that it doesn’t matter who gets elected. I would like to see a political party eschew the partisan barbs and start appealing to voters because they will make the right long-term decisions for the province, not short-term promises to get elected.

Can the Liberals govern differently than most governments in Nova Scotia have governed in the past? Should we expect different and will we get it?

The slate is clean. Prove yourselves.

Packed house on opening day

Photo by Devaan Ingraham /

Temptress! Sophia Smart (Fiona Kirkpatrick Parsons) turns on the charm and Richard Clod (Rob McIntyre) is sure it is against regulations in this scene from Department of Common Sense. Photo by Devaan Ingraham

As a playwright, your job is done before rehearsals begin and long before the curtain rises on a play. When it’s your first play, though, the work is never done. The cast of Department of Common Sense have put so much sweat and toil into this play that they deserve an audience to give them a little extra energy. That’s where my new role of producer comes into play because one of my responsibilities in that role is publicity.

We had great media coverage leading up to our first performance as part of the 23rd Atlantic Fringe Festival in Halifax, and I was delighted to see a packed house for the cast. It was a bit of a steam bath at DANSpace — one audience member quipped it would be great for hot yoga — but the cast persevered and delivered a great show that people enjoyed. It was hot, not as hot as the picture of Fiona Kirkpatrick Parsons (above), but still hot. Kudos to my friend Devaan Ingraham for this great production still.

We learned after the show that Stephen Cooke of The Chronicle Herald attended the play. I waited anxiously for the review — the first time a newspaper had reviewed my play — and I celebrated with a beer after I read this.

I think the cast, and our director Nick Jupp, should take another bow.

Department of Common Sense

DCS-production still-6

When I used to work in government, I would often joke about ridiculous ideas or policies needing to be vetted by the Department of Common Sense. No such department exists — unfortunately — except in my first play.

I took one of my favourite stories from my time in government and I turned it into a play. When I would go to parties and tell this story, people’s jaws would drop, but, as absurd as it was, they did believe it because governments and bureaucrats can do some pretty stupid things. Sometimes, it can be enough to make you want a stiff drink, like the character of Adele Courage above in a scene from the play.

I took that story and built a play around it. It’s a fictional tale of a straight-talking, tequila-sipping government minister who gets two whip-smart women on his staff to take on a persnickety bureaucrat in a battle of wills and wits.

It will make you shake your head in dismay, nod your head in understanding, or seethe with anger. It might make you do all three, but it is sure to make you laugh. We have a fabulous cast including Lianne Perry, Mark Adam, Fiona Kirkpatrick Parsons, Rob McIntyre, Neil Van Horne and Fiona MacKinnon. Nick Jupp did a great job as our director and had a hand in the development of the script when he acted as a dramaturge for me when I took part in the Theatre Arts Guild’s inaugural Playwrights’ Festival.

To learn more about my play, check out this link to the play’s blog or see our Facebook page.

It will be on stage for six shows during the 23rd Atlantic Fringe Festival. Check out the Atlantic Fringe and support local theatre. Hope you enjoy the show.

Rehtaeh Parsons and her family deserve the truth

I have a daughter and I cannot imagine the pain and suffering that Rehtaeh Parsons’ parents are going through right now.

I also have four teenage sons and I cannot imagine any of them participating in what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons and, if they were, I would be ashamed and turn them into police.

Four boys are alleged to have raped her in November 2011. One of them took pictures that night and shared it on Facebook. The RCMP investigated the incident and decided not to lay charges. The four boys – who were not interviewed by the Mounties until several months after the incident – were not charged with sexual assault because the police said it was a he said, she said case.

Rehtaeh Parsons was 15 at the time, so that means that the person who took her picture and distributed it online should have been charged with making and distributing child pornography. That didn’t happen either.

One of the basic tenets of Canada’s legal system is that all people should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. This, I agree with. In cases of sexual assault, the issue of consent is often the point that is argued in court and determines whether there is a conviction or an acquittal. Even if you assume that the four boys had consent, that in no way excuses what happened with the photograph.

It is illegal to create and distribute child pornography in Canada. That is what happened here and the only thing that can be disputed is who took the picture and who pressed the send button. What the police should have done was found out who owned the phone that sent the picture and on whose Facebook account the picture was posted. Given modern technology, these two things should be easy enough to do. Once charges are laid, the person – or people – responsible should have an overwhelming urge to tell police what they know and assist them in piecing together the facts.

Consent, if it existed, also doesn’t excuse the unjustified scorn Rehtaeh Parsons faced at Cole Harbour District High School and online.

That suffering ended this past weekend when, after she hanged herself in the bathroom at home, she went into a coma and was taken off life support.

Given that tragic result, even if one of my sons was questioned and not charged,  I would be taking them to the police station and making sure that they told the truth – the whole truth – about what they did and what they saw.

Unfortunately, the “My-Johnny-Can-Do-No-Wrong” Syndrome is all too prevalent and many parents fail to hold their kids accountable.

I worry about the world my daughter is growing up in. I worry that she is growing up in a province that has failed to properly investigate this incident, but I am glad that our provincial Justice Minister, Ross Landry, is looking in to this.

In the poignant words of Peter Gabriel in his song about Stephen Biko, the eyes of the world are watching now. Let’s do the right thing, Nova Scotia. Let’s find the truth and let’s have justice.

Natural gas could lower power rates

There has been a lot of complaining about Nova Scotia Power Inc.’s (NSPI) latest application for a rate increase and rightly so.

However, the groundswell of opposition is directed at rising salaries, bonuses, and a swanky party by executives, and does not address the root of the problem. Even the opposition parties in the Nova Scotia legislature got into the act as they repeatedly stood up in Question Period and railed against the NDP government and accused the Dexter government of being too cozy with Emera,

The only defence the NDP mounted was that it had taken the HST off home electricity. Time and time again, the NDP went back to this defence, looking like a boxer against the ropes, gloves held up over their face and absorbing punch after punch. The Liberals and the Tories were more than happy to deliver them, too, much to the delight of the angry mob that was watching.

While the NDP did remove the HST — and that move did provide immediate relief — it didn’t go far enough in addressing the short-term pain associated with the Renewable Electricity Plan that the NDP implemented in 2010. This plan was designed to get Nova Scotia Power off its dependence on coal and set a legislated target for 25 per cent renewable energy by 2015. This switch was a no-brainer and the NDP should be lauded for this.

What the NDP realized, but not all ratepayers realize, is that there is a short-term cost associated with this because building new infrastructure costs money.

Unfortunately, the prospect of stable rates in the future has not been enough to placate the growing discontent among ratepayers. If added infrastructure costs for renewables was the only cause for rate hikes, it would be easier to stomach — but it’s not. Another huge problem for Nova Scotia Power is their outdated blueprint based on burning coal, a commodity that has gone up in price because of a growing demand in China and other industrializing countries.

Meanwhile, there is a glut in the natural gas market — something that has existed for a few years now — and there hasn’t been a big enough shift away from coal to natural gas. Doing this would help reduce electricity rates, provide a better back-up for renewables, reduce emissions, and allow Nova Scotia Power to burn a made-in Nova Scotia fuel. While it can be risky to rely too much on one fuel source, clearly Nova Scotia Power needs to increase its ability to burn natural gas — and pronto.

Most of the coal Nova Scotia Power burns is imported and last year it generated 57 per cent of its electricity from coal. Meanwhile, natural gas generated only 20 per cent of electricity in Nova Scotia. Tufts Cove in Dartmouth is going flat out, but it’s the only thermal plant in the province capable of generating electricity by burning natural gas.

The Renewable Electricity Plan should have been introduced in tandem with a plan to boost the use of natural gas, but it wasn’t and this was a missed opportunity.

So, while the government can’t tell NSPI to lower rates and it can’t tell the Utility and Review Board to reject the latest application, it is not powerless to address rising power rates.

Just like it changed the rules of the game for NSPI to make it create more renewable electricity, the government could do so again and make it burn more natural gas. Many other jurisdictions have made a more rapid move away from coal to natural gas, but Nova Scotia is lagging behind.

The Jesus T-shirt

A student at Forest Heights Community School in Chester Basin, Lunenburg County, has been suspended for wearing a T-shirt that says: “Life is wasted without Jesus.” (See story here.)

Asking the student to remove the shirt did not work and William Swinimer has defiantly refused to comply with the request to not wear it to school. (See story here.)

The Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party today called on Education Minister Ramona Jennex to intervene and overturn the decision of the South Shore School Board to suspend the student. To support their argument, the Tories cite Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states:

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
But the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are not absolute and this is an important factor in this case. Section 1 of the Charter establishes that there are limits.
1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

The term “reasonable limits” is the crux of the debate. Some have argued that this T-shirt’s message is possibly hate speech or, at the very least, is disrespectful of other religions and should be curtailed. This is not merely a declaration of faith by a Christian, it is a condemnation of non-Christians.

As my old constitutional law professor used to say in class: “The right to swing one’s fist ends at another person’s face.”

I can’t help but wonder whether we would be having this same debate if a student wore a T-shirt to school that read: “Life is wasted without Allah.”

I’m not a devotee of any religion, but I support religious freedoms for those of every faith. This T-shirt crosses the line, though, and I do not condone intolerance of other religions.

New Waterford jobs not exactly as advertised

On Monday, the NDP government announced it was moving jobs from the city to rural areas to fulfill the commitment that they had made in this spring’s Throne Speech.

In three separate announcements, they announced that 93 jobs involving three departments would be moving. Two of those were straightforward. Agriculture jobs were moving from Halifax to Truro while Fisheries and Aquaculture was moving some jobs from Halifax to Digby-Clementsport and some to Shelburne County.

Here is what the news release from the Department of Justice said about the transfer of its maintenance enforcement jobs to New Waterford.

Service is currently delivered online, via telephone and in five locations around the province.”

It boasted that 25 jobs would be moving to Cape Breton. When combined with the 11 already in Sydney, it would amount to 36 jobs for New Waterford. Left unsaid in the release is the names of the communities where those maintenance enforcement staff are employed and their current staffing levels — with the exception of the 11 staff in Sydney.

Here are the rest of the numbers:

  • Dartmouth, 11
  • Halifax, 8
  • Kentville, 8
  • Amherst, 6
  • New Glasgow, 3

The eight staff at the Department of Justice offices on Terminal Road in Halifax will not be moving as they need to remain in Halifax to be close to Finance staff.

The 17 staff in the rural communities of Kentville, Amherst and New Glasgow were part of a planned consolidation with the 11 staff in urban Dartmouth. Premier Darrell Dexter said consolidations such as this have — in the past — normally involved staff moving into the city.

So, of the 47 maintenance enforcement jobs in the province, 36 will be in New Waterford. Of those 36, only 11 are currently in the provincial capital.

That the NDP chose to make a planned consolidation take place in New Waterford instead of the Halifax Regional Municipality is fine. The only people who object to this appear to be the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, but the government should have been more forthcoming with the details.

Sometimes, PR people are reluctant to “get down in the weeds” by providing too many details. In this case, because the consolidation of the maintenance enforcement jobs had not been previously revealed, these details were relevant and should have been part of Monday’s announcement.

Capers get testy in the House

Tempers flared yesterday in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly as Liberal MLA Geoff MacLellan questioned Public Service Commission Minister Frank Corbett about moving civil servants out of Halifax to rural communities.

MacLellan represents Glace Bay and is happy the Department of Justice is transferring 36 jobs to New Waterford, but the Liberal Rural and Economic Development critic wants details about the costs associated with the move.

The province says it will be “cost neutral” while MacLellan wondered if the price tag makes the moves worthwhile. It’s a fair question, but until the government knows how many people are going to move with their jobs, it’s difficult to determine what the cost will be and whether the move makes sense on a balance sheet.

Corbett, who is the MLA for Cape Breton Centre which includes New Waterford, got a little testy when MacLellan pressed him on claim there would be future savings to make up for the initial costs.

“This is a cost neutral move, Mr. Speaker,” Corbett said. “There will be costs in the front end when people are moving, but I’ll tell you what’s not cost neutral. When the Liberals closed the pits in Cape Breton and sent them out to Alberta and points west. That wasn’t cost neutral, that darn near killed our island.”

That, of course, was a reference to the Chretien Liberals selling of Devco — then Canada’s largest underground coal mine — which led to massive layoffs.

By the end of his comment, Corbett’s voice had reached a crescendo and sparked applause from the NDP caucus, yelling from the opposition benches, and drew MacLellan to his feet.

It was then that the Gentle Voice of Reason from Whitney Pier, a.k.a Speaker Gordie Gosse, stepped in to defuse the dispute between the MLA from New Waterford and his counterpart from Glace Bay.

“Order!” Gosse pleaded and then waited. “Let’s just take a short little deep breath. Relax, OK? It’s becoming a bit heated in here, so I’d ask the members to take a deep breath so we can continue a good debate in the chamber in a nice Parliamentary way, alright?”

The Speaker did the right thing to settle things down, but might have made history as the first Philadelphia Flyers fan to break up a fight.