Evelyn C White Reviews A Powerful Biography from the Father of Rehtaeh Parsons
Rehtaeh—It’s a name rooted in whimsy that would give rise to global headlines. As a child, Leah Parsons, with crayons in hand, made a card for her cousin Heather. Project finished, she happily affixed the name Rehtaeh to the vibrant art piece.
“Everyone laughed, but not Leah,” writes Glen Canning in his powerful book My Daughter Rehtaeh Parsons. “[She] said that when she had a little girl, the child would be called Rehtaeh.”
Translation: Heather spelled backwards.
In a riveting narrative co-authored with journalist Susan McClelland, Canning chronicles the catastrophic events that led to the attempted suicide of his child, on April 4, 2013. Taken off life-support, the aspiring marine biologist, age 17, died three days later. Several of Rehtaeh’s organs were donated to patients then in urgent need of transplant surgery.
“Thank you for your letter,” Canning writes, in the volume, to the youth who received Rehtaeh’s heart. “Go far, enjoy your life to the fullest, and dance as often as you can.”
Respectively employed as a Navy diver and an animal rights advocate, Canning and Leah Parsons welcomed the arrival of their daughter (nicknamed Rae) in December 1995. “We both wanted Rae, and we believed we were meant to come together, not romantically, but for a child,” Canning writes, noting that the couple, “better friends than partners,” maintained a tight bond after Rae’s birth.
In mid-November 2011, Canning received news that Rehtaeh, then age 15, and a student at Cole Harbour High School, had been sexually assaulted by several local boys while at a party. One of the alleged perpetrators then posted on social media a photo of Rae, half-naked and inebriated. The cellphone image also revealed a grinning boy with his pelvis thrust against the teen’s exposed backside and giving a thumbs up to the camera.
“Most of that evening was a blackout for Rae,” Canning writes. “She knew she woke up the next morning on a bed … between two boys she didn’t know. … Her clothes were on backwards. … Rae told Leah, then later on me, and eventually the police, that she didn’t know what exactly had happened.”
The lurid photo of Rehtaeh Parsons soon went viral. “Rae had learned that the boys were sending the picture around and boasting how they got lucky,” Canning writes. “But it was the girls, including friends Rae had believed she could trust, who were relentless in their attacks over text and social media, calling her a slut. Rae [wanted] the picture confiscated and the cyber harassment to stop so she could return to school.”
The image continued to gain traction as Rehtaeh, increasingly distraught, transferred from one Halifax area high school to another. Claiming their inability to lay sexual assault charges against the boys, the police effectively threw up their hands. “Leah and I tried to console [Rae], but she was almost catatonic, murmuring over and over again, ‘This will follow me everywhere,’” writes Canning in a saga that takes unexpected turns.
He continues: “The medical report had come back stating that there was anal tearing. … Nonetheless, a different narrative had emerged around Rae. … She had gone to that house to have sex with those boys and couldn’t handle the shaming that came afterward. She wasn’t raped, other parents started messaging us; she was conniving and manipulative.”
In a bold move, Canning offers a sampling of the odious messages that drove his once ebullient child to hang herself. “Loser, whore,” stated one. “…Good for only one thing: a gangbang,” declared another.
He also recounts, to equally damning effect, her failed treatment at a Halifax mental health facility for adolescents.
The death of Rehtaeh Parsons garnered worldwide media attention and prompted changes in Canadian laws related to child pornography, cyberbullying and sexual violence. Canning notes that his daughter’s remains were interred at a Dartmouth cemetery. Her gleaming black marble tombstone features the words “Forever Loved.”
Now in their mid to late twenties, Rehtaeh’s alleged assailants were never prosecuted for sexual assault. Among others, the author pays tribute to the late RCMP Constable Heidi Stevenson, who supported the Canning/Parsons families throughout their ordeal. A mother of two, Stevenson was slain, in the line of duty, during the April 2020 mass killing in rural Nova Scotia.