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My Years Without Rehtaeh Taught Me That Kids Need To Know Consent

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Three years ago, my daughter Rehtaeh Parsons gave up the brave fight she had fought with many demons and she ended her life.

As tempted as I am to go home and curl up in the comforting darkness, there are too many reasons not to. The last three years have taught me a lot about justice, sexual assault, and where our focus needs to be -- especially if we want to do something to address the toll that rape culture takes on our communities.

When sexual assault advocates, counsellors, and rape crisis centres are at the point where they believe going to the police and filing a report will cause more harm than good, it's safe to say our criminal justice system has some serious trust issues. Whether or not it's willing to admit it is pretty much moot at this point. This is no longer a case of #DueProcess meets #WeBelieveSurvivors.

It's a case of #WeLostFaith.

But I'm not going to talk about Jian Ghomeshi, Bill Cosby, Judge Robin Camp's berating of a rape victim for not keeping her knees together, or how upsetting it is to realize that the feminists I've gotten to know during the past three years have all been threatened with rape and murder because they spoke out online.

Instead, I want to talk to you about what I believe we can do about it.

rehtaeh parsons
Rehtaeh Parsons was 17 when she was taken off life-support in April 2013 after attempting suicide. (Photo: Facebook)

A few months after Rehtaeh died, a sexual assault centre in a rural town of Nova Scotia asked me to come and do a talk with them for some high school students. During the discussion, a counsellor asked the class (of about 30 girls and one boy) a very insightful question: "If a girl who went to a party and drank to much and some boys had 'sex' with her, how many of you think it was her fault?"

Easily half the hands went up.

"Not teaching sons and daughters the law is what led to my daughter going into a bathroom three years ago and hanging herself."

Chances are what happened to Rehtaeh has happened to someone at that school and every other high school in Canada. It's not hard to imagine what happens once other students find out the identity of the victim; that girl or boy will be blamed, ridiculed, hated, and tormented to the point of becoming suicidal.

Rarely will they tell their parents and get the police involved. Most of them will spend a big part of their lives blaming themselves, especially if they were among those putting their hand up in response to that question.

You cannot have sexual intercourse or do anything else sexual to a person who hasn't or is unable to consent to it. The Criminal Code of Canada (Section 273.1) provides a clear definition of consent and lists specific situations where there is no consent including:

  • Where the agreement is expressed by the words or conduct of a person other than the complainant
  • Where the complainant is incapable of consenting to the activity
  • Where the accused induces the complainant to engage in the activity by abusing a position of trust, power or authority
  • Where the complainant expresses, by words or conduct, a lack of agreement to engage in the activity, or
  • Where the complainant, having consented to engage in sexual activity, expresses, by words or conduct, a lack of agreement to continue to engage in the activity.

That isn't a set of guidelines, it's the law. Not knowing the law is irrelevant. Not teaching sons and daughters the law is what led to my daughter going into a bathroom three years ago and hanging herself.

"The best way to combat sexual violence isn't through the courts. The best way to prevent sexual violence is to engage youth in the conversation."

A few months ago, a reporter called me regarding some school talks I did in Toronto about consent, sexual assault, and bullying. He had a parent call him to complain that my talk was inappropriate for high school. There are parents who prefer, usually on religious grounds, that talks about sex should be something a family decides to do at home with their own children. I understand, but...

If 15-year-old boys are raping 15-year-old girls who end up being blamed for it by other 15-year-old girls, then way too many of us aren't really talking to our kids about sex ed and consent at home.

In the past three years I've learned the best way to combat sexual violence isn't through the courts. The best way to prevent sexual violence is to engage youth in the conversation.

Many of them already want to talk about consent. They can and want to play a role in preventing sexual assault and the subsequent victim-blaming that always follows. I know they want to, because some of them are doing it already.

In Ontario, Grade 8 students Tessa Hill and Lia Valente convinced Ontario premier Kathleen Wynn to put consent in the new sex-ed curriculum. They also made a short documentary about rape culture in the media and are the youngest-ever winners of YWCA Toronto's Women of Distinction Award.

I spoke in Ottawa a couple years ago and a local high school teacher brought some of his students to listen. After the talk, I had the chance to meet them and talk a bit about the importance of intervention when it comes to preventing rape and violence. They seemed like some really nice young men and I am still blown away with what they came up with.

"In the past three years I've learned that the most powerful tool to combat violence against women could very well be the minds of young men."

I found out about the work they were doing when the teacher called to ask me to speak at the school where he teaches: Longfields-Davidson Heights Secondary School (LDHSS). This was in the fall of 2014, and I'll never forget walking into the school and seeing the posters. Posters about consent, posters about standing up for others, about violence against women, about the role men play in addressing bullying and abuse.

The young guys who heard me talk formed a group they called ManUp, and now they've spread the message to many other Ottawa high schools, with a lot of interest from other regions.

What does ManUp stand for and do? In an interview with the Ottawa Community News, Grade 12 student and member Ben Noor says that ManUp wants to:

"...get across the message to students, young males in our community, that we need to stop violence against women. To change the idea of what constitutes a man in our society... A man will speak up if he hears a sexist or derogatory comment towards women. A man teaches other males about healthy relationships. A man will not stand by if he sees violence happening. A man is not a passive bystander."

How important is that group of young men? From my perspective, I can't help but wonder if one of those guys was there when Rehtaeh needed someone to help, she may very well be alive today. Because he wouldn't have stood there and watched. Given her state, he would have known she couldn't possibly have consented.

I can only wish a young man like Ben had been there looking out for my daughter.

Blog continues after the video below

Glen Canning reflects on what he's learned three years after the death of his daughter, Rehtaeh Parsons. On the anniversary of her passing, Glen has an urgent message for other parents. Read his blog here: http://huff.to/22dOaQ0

Posted by HuffPost Canada Parents on Thursday, April 7, 2016

The most powerful tool

In the past three years I've learned that the most powerful tool to combat violence against women could very well be the minds of young men.

In three years I've learned that if we don't fill those minds with examples of virtue, empathy, affection, tolerance, trust, kindness, courage, and bravery, then those minds will end up being filled with ignorance, racism, sexism, hate, and anger. What would have happened to Rehtaeh Parsons if just one of the boys with her that night was informed about consent and his role in preventing sexual violence?

After Rehtaeh died, the young man in the photograph sent her mom a series of Facebook messages. The last one reads, "I regret everything that happened I don't want to live with the title Rapest (sic) for the rest of my life it is the most hurtful word I can think of."

He doesn't think what he did was rape because he doesn't know what rape is. Something in his life blurred the line between what is healthy and what is abuse and no one corrected him. Rehtaeh Parsons paid for it for by doing nothing more than wrongly believing she would be safe in the company of other teenagers in her community.

"I knew nothing about rape culture until it shattered the person I cared about more than anyone. I own that and I have to live with it. Once you see it, you will recognize it everywhere."

Our unwillingness to engage youth and really talk to them about consent, sex, boundaries, and rape cost my daughter her life. Rape is a crime of character and that means a great deal can be done to prevent it. That's why it is vital for us to speak to our young men and women and set in stone not only where the boundaries are, but also who is at fault when those boundaries are crossed.

I knew nothing about rape culture until it shattered the person I cared about more than anyone. I own that and I have to live with it. Once you see it, you will recognize it everywhere.

There was a time when rape culture could shield and protect a rapist from his rape, but that time is long gone. Social media has seen to that. The names of men who abuse women were once written on bathroom walls and now those names are coming out on Twitter.

We can label that irresponsible, criminal, unfair, and injustice, but it was our failure to act and believe when it would have mattered that is ultimately responsible for it.

rehtaeh parsonsFamily photo.

It took me weeks to write this. I'd start and finish and erase and rewrite. Summing up the past three years without sounding angry has been impossible.

I want to end this with a plea to the parents of teenage boys. I want you to imagine your son graduating high school with all the promise his life holds as he steps into the next chapter. University, a job, getting married and giving you grandkids to enjoy, the places he will visit, the friends he will make.

Now imagine how hard it's going to be for him to do any of that when the first thing that comes up on a Google search of his name is that he participated in the rape of a 15-year-old girl.

It's the first thing that comes up for all four of the boys who assaulted Rehtaeh. Unjust, unfair, irresponsible...

Preventable.

If you don't think this could ever affect your son, you are wrong.

If you don't think rape jokes, rape chants, hate-fucking polls on Facebook, cat-calling on streets, or standing silently by doing nothing will ever affect your son, you are deeply mistaken.

Three years ago, I walked down a hallway in a hospital and saw the cost of rape culture in Canada. Please talk to your children about boundaries, consent, healthy relationships, and sexual violence.

They'll listen. I know they will.

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