First-in-Canada law allows N.S. cyberbullying victims to sue, seek protection

HALIFAX – Bullying victims can now sue cyberbullies or get court-ordered protection in Nova Scotia.

The law, which includes a first-in-Canada investigation unit, is part of Nova Scotia’s new Cyber-Safety Act introduced in April following the death of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons.

“Too many young people and their families are being hurt by cyberbullies,” Justice Minister Ross Landry said on Wednesday. “I committed to families that the province would work with them to better protect our children and young people. Court orders, and the ability to sue, are more tools that help put a stop to this destructive behaviour.”

In the case of a lawsuit, parents of cyberbullies could be held liable for damages if the aggressor is a minor.

But while many hailed the new legislation, some academics and psychiatrists argue it won’t address the roots of bullying. In some cases, one professor says, it could make it tougher to come forward or more likely, problems may fester until they escalate to courtroom proportions.

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Parsons’ family alleged the Halifax-area high school student endured months of bullying after a photo of her allegedly being sexually assaulted by a group of boys was shared among schoolmates.

READ MORE: Report calls for new law against sharing intimate photos without consent

The new unit, called CyberScan, will begin work in September under the direction of former police officer Roger Merrick.

Merrick will oversee five investigators looking into cyberbullying complaints — regardless of if the victim is a child or an adult.

Changes to the Education Act will also mean school principals will be responsible for responding to incidents of bullying and cyberbullying at school, as well as beyond school hours and the school grounds.

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“This sends a clear message, cyberbullying is a serious act with serious consequences. Think before you text,” Landry said.

There have been calls for Nova Scotia and other provinces across Canada to crack down on bullying and cyberbullying.

The Parsons case caught international attention and prompted protests, eventually leading to provincial leaders addressing the issue at the Council of the Federation meetings in July.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper also spoke out about Parsons’ death and met with her parents, Leah Parsons and Glen Canning.

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Following the girl’s death, reviews were conducted of the RCMP handling of the sexual assault complaint, the hospital where she was admitted when she became suicidal, and of how the Halifax Regional School Board dealt with the case.

“We’ve all been affected by cyberbullying, whether it has happened to us or someone we know or we’ve just seen it online,” said Chantel O’Brien, a member of Nova Scotia’s Youth Advisory Council. “These amendments will be a wake-up call to those who think they can hide behind a computer to avoid being held accountable. It’s reassuring to see the government taking action to ensure youth can feel safe in their own homes.”

But without comprehensive programs that provide a climate where kids feel comfortable discussing bullying, the new law won’t change much, said Faye Mishna, cyberbullying researcher and dean of Factor Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto.

“In some cases, it’s good to have the court option, but overall that’s not going to be the way we’re going to address it,” Mishna told Global News. “I think it’s a lot of money, a lot of aggravation, and I think it sounds easier than it is to sue somebody…Who’s going to pay for the lawyers?”

She does believe the court option is appropriate for cases that have become extremely serious, but worries that by the time kids are ready to tell an adult about bullying, it’s already become too serious.

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“One of the reasons kids don’t like to tell [on people who are bullying them] is they don’t want to make it a big deal,” she said. “And this will make it a big deal.”

In relation to the changes to the Education Act, Mishna wonders how exactly principals will be responsible for cyberbullying incidents beyond school hours and grounds, and how they will be compensated for the additional work.

She also worries about parents of cyberbullies being held liable if the aggressor is a minor and it ends in a lawsuit. While she realizes some parents may be negligent and facilitating cyberbullying, others might be parents who are “working three jobs and aren’t available for other reasons.”

Mishna notes that parents can’t always be supervising their kids in the age of Internet and cellphones, and urges policy makers to change things “so that everybody’s involved.”

“As an overall strategy to address cyberbullying, I don’t think this is the best way,” she said. “As one component of an overall strategy that includes comprehensive, school-wide programs in the curriculum, discussions, workshops…then I think that’s great. But just this alone…it’s not going to be a wake-up call.”

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For our full coverage of the Rehtaeh Parsons case, click here

With files from The Canadian Press

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