04/30/2013 04:25 EDT | Updated 06/30/2013 05:12 EDT

Cyberbullying Canada: Rona Ambrose Brought To Tears During Government Announcement


OTTAWA - During her seven years as a cabinet minister, some of them difficult, Rona Ambrose has rarely been anything but cool and detached.

But the public works minister briefly set aside her professional poise Tuesday when she was asked why she was taking such a personal interest in the heart-wrenching issue of cyberbullying.

"I've met a lot of people that have been impacted by this,"Ambrose said, choking back tears. "We've worked very hard to make this happen, and we're just thrilled to be a part of it."

The emotional moment was brief. Ambrose almost instantly returned to the posture of a composed cabinet minister with the next question, but the episode did illustrate the impact that cyberbullying is having on the nationwide psyche.

A number of recent high-profile cyberbullying cases, including the death of Rehtaeh Parsons in Nova Scotia, has triggered a federal response that will include new criminal legislation later this year.

Parsons, 17, died in hospital April 7 after trying to take her own life. Her family alleges Parsons was sexually assaulted by four boys in 2011 and that a digital photograph of the incident was shared around her school.

Ambrose, who is also the minister for the status of women, had to pause and collect herself during a speech outlining a new government initiative aimed at confronting online bullying of young people.

"We've seen recently some very difficult cases that have affected young people when it comes to cyberbullying harassment and abuse," she said, wiping tears from her eyes.

The federal government will contribute $300,000 to a new interactive workshop that uses audio, animation and text to teach kids about the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships.

The online resource builds on an existing classroom program run by the Canadian Red Cross, which reached about 50,000 students across the country last year.

"We're turning cyberbullying on its head, and we're using the Internet to put out positive messages about healthy relationships," Ambrose said.

Former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, co-founder of Respect Group, which is a partner in the program, said the new website launch reflects a growing awareness of the need to address youth issues like bullying.

"These issues, when we don't deal with them properly, kill our kids," Kennedy said. "I think that the Internet has highlighted that."

"The Internet has become a whole new tool, unfortunately, of good and bad," Ambrose said. "We can work on prevention, and education, and awareness."

Leslie Dunning, director general of violence and abuse prevention with the Canadian Red Cross, said putting the program online expands its reach, allowing teachers, youth organizations and parents to access the tool.

"They learn about sexual assault, physical assault, and emotional abuse, and where they can get help," Dunning said.

"We're really limited in terms of in-classroom direct presentation ... this puts it into rural communities and remote communities, and many First Nations communities that don't have access to some of the in-person delivery because of the distances."

The program will also train young people to deliver workshops to their peers within schools and organizations, Dunning added.

The online adaptation was handled by Kennedy's Respect Group, which runs programs certifying recreational sports coaches and educating adults in schools.

City of Ottawa Coun. Allan Hubley, whose son took his own life two years ago, called the program an important preventive measure.

"Now we have something available that youth and the teachers and the parents can access when they need it," Hubley said. "Hopefully with this we'll be able to prevent crisis, instead of reacting to the crisis."

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