HALIFAX – The cousin of a young woman who committed suicide after an alleged assault and months of bullying issued an emotional appeal to people Thursday not to use violence to avenge her death.
Angella Parsons stood before a sombre crowd of about 300 people in a Halifax park to reflect on the short life of Rehtaeh Parsons and the lessons that should be learned from her loss.
“My family asks people not to respond with violence and aggression to this terrible tragedy,” she told the crowd through tears.
“We’re all angry. … Rehtaeh was angry, however, feeling angry and responding in anger and aggression are two very different things.”
The gathering came after Rehtaeh’s family said she hanged herself last week and was taken off life-support Sunday, following months of bullying linked to an alleged sexual assault by four boys at a house party in 2011.
Her mother has said a picture of the alleged assault was circulated to other teenagers, prompting relentless torment by her peers and a steady decline in the young girl’s mental health.
An outreach worker urged people to reach out to young people struggling with depression, abuse and bullying.
“Although we may have lost Rehtaeh and she may have sunk below the surface, please remember that there are youth who have been treading water for a long time and they are getting tired,” Ardath Whynacht told the group as sweet grass and incense wafted through the cool evening air.
Mourners held candles and posters of some of the many pictures of the 17-year-old that have surfaced on countless websites as her story captivated people across the country and the world.
As the sun set on a chilly evening, a native elder read a prayer: “We pray for an end to violence against young women and girls,” while another group sang and drummed a traditional honour song.
Kim Wall said she came to the event with her 18-year-old daughter to show support for Rehtaeh’s family and express her indignation at the alleged sexual abuse.
“We have to fear for our daughters and I’m just done with this,” she said. “This is a young girl’s life that was taken. Dear God, let something positive come out of this.”
Premier Darrell Dexter and Halifax Mayor Mike Savage mixed with the crowd, who called on politicians to enhance supports for young people and closely probe the family’s allegations about the assault.
The RCMP have said they are aware of reports that some are suggesting harm against people involved in the investigation.
In Calgary, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the story has shocked him and his wife, Laureen.
“I can just tell you Laureen and I as parents of a teenage daughter we’re just sickened seeing a story like this,” he said.
“I think we’ve got to stop just using just the term bullying to describe some of these things. Bullying to me has a connotation of kind of kids misbehaving. What we are dealing with in some of these circumstances is simply criminal activity,” he said.
“It is youth criminal activity. It is violent criminal activity. It is sexual criminal activity and it is often Internet criminal activity.”
Harper said the government will continue to encourage anti-bullying strategies.
“Obviously we are looking at ways to combat this and to deal with this when it happens,” he added.
Earlier Thursday, Dexter told the legislature he wanted a timely response to satisfy the public’s concerns about Rehtaeh’s case.
“I will do everything in my power to create a community that is better equipped to prevent these situations, rather than a community that struggles to find a way to deal with them,” Dexter said.
Marilyn More, the minister responsible for the status of women, was appointed to oversee the provincial government’s response to the girl’s death. She will work with the ministers of justice, education, health and community services to assess support services for people who face sexual violence.
Dexter said he hopes a series of measures aimed at improving mental health services, policing and education will be rolled out as soon as possible.
The government has come under criticism after Justice Minister Ross Landry initially ruled out the possibility of reviewing how the RCMP handled allegations that Rehtaeh was sexually assaulted in November 2011.
Landry later changed course, saying he has asked senior officials for options to review how the Mounties and the Public Prosecution Service concluded there were insufficient grounds to lay charges against the boys.
Education Minister Ramona Jennex has also asked the Halifax Regional School Board to review its response to Rehtaeh’s case.