The Tragic Story Behind Canada's Iconic "Stay Alert... Stay Safe" PSAs
Bert and Gert showed a generation of Canadian kids how to stay safe. But Canada's first — and only — national streetproofing program only existed because of the murder of an 11-year-old girl in 1986.
At 11 years old, Alison Parrott discovered she was a talented runner. She had only won one race — the 800 metres at a local meet in Toronto — but her race times qualified her to represent Ontario at a track-and-field tournament in New Jersey on August 1, 1986.
Shortly before summer vacation, at an assembly at École Gabrielle-Roy in Toronto, Alison was called upon to accept the track banner on behalf of her peers. The young athlete stood on the stage while her classmates chanted her name from the audience.
That July, Toronto area families listed under “Parrott” in the phone book started getting phone calls from a man who said he wanted to speak with Alison. Among the calls made was one to the Parrott family of Summerhill Avenue, a quiet, leafy enclave in Toronto’s tony Rosedale district. On July 25, Alison was home to answer the call: The caller identified himself as a photographer looking to take publicity photos for her upcoming track meet.
Alison called her mother, Lesley Parrott — who was working downtown as an executive with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency — to request permission to participate in the photo shoot with other young track-and-field athletes. Parrott agreed and told Alison to be home by 2:30 p.m. Alison was accustomed to taking transit alone, and Varsity Stadium was a familiar training ground, only four subway stops away from home. Parrott helped her with directions to get to the northwest corner of the stadium.
By 2:30 p.m., Alison had yet to return home. By 5 p.m., Parrott started calling friends and neighbours asking if they knew where she was. At 6 p.m., she called the police.
In the previous 36 months, there had been three high-profile child abduction cases in the Toronto area. In 1983, 9-year-old Sharin’ Morningstar Keenan went to play in Jean Sibelius Park near her home in the Annex neighbourhood; she was found raped and strangled in a garbage bag in a rooming house refrigerator. In 1984, Christine Jessop, also 9, was abducted from Queensville, Ontario, and found raped and murdered 50 kilometres away. In 1985, 8-year-old Nicole Morin left her Etobicoke apartment to meet a friend for a swim. She never arrived.
Alison had joined their ranks, her photos posted all over the city and her parents appearing on television, pleading for her safe return. Fifty-five hours after she left home, Alison was found in King’s Mill Park; she had been raped and strangled.
“Of course, I have regrets about letting her meet the man,” Parrott told the Globe and Mail in 1986 about the photographer who initially called Alison. “But you can't rewrite history. We made that decision together. She didn't get murdered because we made a bad decision, but because someone wanted to murder her.”
There were 37 murders in Toronto in 1986, but Alison’s was particularly impactful. It precipitated one of the most expensive and in-depth investigations in the city’s history and ignited a cultural conversation on child safety. Her murder led the Toronto Sun to advocate for capital punishment in Canada in a front-page editorial headlined “The Death Penalty Now.”
The 1980s was the era of “stranger danger” — when a handful of real tragedies mixed with fear and misinformation to create a climate of distrust, and at times panic, about what evil strangers would do to children. A standard call-and-response developed in the media. When children were abducted or murdered, “streetproofing” — teaching children to deal with strangers and to avoid perilous situations — was touted as the solution. Anxious parents signed their children up for streetproofing classes and spent money on streetproofing books and products to prevent further tragedies.
Following her daughter's death, Parrott spoke out against calls for the death penalty and rejected fear-based approaches to streetproofing. She then launched her own streetproofing campaign, drawing upon the talent of her colleagues at J. Walter Thompson. With a message focused on empowering children, she channeled her family tragedy into one of the most iconic public safety programs in Canadian history: “Stay Alert… Stay Safe.”
Thirty years after Alison’s murder, the campaign — particularly the ’90s-era PSAs — remains iconic for a generation of Canadian children. Though many programs were spearheaded by self-anointed experts, "Stay Alert... Stay Safe" was the brainchild of a talented team of advertisers, helmed by a parent with a mission.
“It gave meaning to Alison’s life,” Parrott says today of this work. “It’s the way I’ve continued to be her mother.”
“My upbringing taught me to try to help if you possibly can,” Parrott says today, 30 years after Alison’s murder. She’s 70 years old now, with closely cropped grey hair and piercing blue eyes. As the lunch set arrives at Toronto's Verity women's club, the din rises, but the conversation at Parrott's table continues unabated.
She grew up as a minister’s daughter in a Scottish manse and spent her teen years in a rough part of Glasgow, where she learned street smarts. But she and her family also devoted themselves to helping the community. Many parents who’ve been through a tragedy choose to retreat from the media. Instead, Parrott became a leading voice against the death penalty in Canada as well as an advocate for bereaved families and child safety.
Following Alison’s death, illusions of safety and the power of streetproofing were quashed, Parrott says: “Toronto was no longer ‘Toronto the Good.' Society lost something. Her murder was a catalyst for helicopter parents and kids not going outside to play. There’s a sadness because we rob them of childhood.”
Though the crime of child abduction and murder was real, there was a degree of mythmaking in the 1980s as to its frequency. This helped foster the business of streetproofing children. Parents could read opinions in Canadian books like A Parent's Guide to Streetproofing Children by Richard Gossage and Melvin Gunton, The Look Out Book by Cindy Blakely and Suzanne Drinkwater, and Sharon E. McKay’s Streetproofing: Gently and Creatively.
Available products ranged from the innocuous — Safely Home, a streetproofing board game endorsed by a leading child safety organization — to the paranoid. Abduction Awareness, a US-published handbook, was handed out for free at Canadian malls. It made the false claim that as many as 60,000 children a year were abducted in Canada. (A forthcoming study from the Canadian Centre for Child Protection found that 155 children have been abducted and murdered by strangers in Canada since 1970. It's possible the 60,000 figure cited in the handbook was incorrectly calculated, much like this inaccurate statistic currently circulating in the US.) There was also an identification kit from Canadian Missing Children Systems that came with a guarantee of $2,000 worth of posters and labour to help find your child.
Like so many fear-based discussions, 1980s-era streetproofing wasn’t nuanced. “There's two flavours to these books,” Bill Elleker, part owner of a parenting bookstore, told the Globe and Mail in 1990. “One flavour is a very low level of intervention, and the other is just about equipping your kids with grenades, and there is not much in between.”
Despite the popularity of streetproofing programs, there were doubts about their effectiveness and extreme measures. “The problem with this industry that has been created is that it capitalizes on ignorance,” Lorna Grant, then executive director of the Metropolitan Toronto Special Committee on Child Abuse, told the Toronto Star in 1986. “Parents are looking around for quick answers to complex problems, but there aren't any. The very word 'streetproofing' is misleading because it suggests that there's a foolproof way of protecting children.” Alison’s murder was a prime example that there was no such shortcut.
Streetproofing, at its most basic level, offered some important lessons for children, but they were often overshadowed by incorrect statistics about child abduction; heightened, irrational fear of strangers; and the knowledge that child abductions and murders often proved difficult for police to solve in the 80s.
“Stranger-murders are minuscule and put tremendous fear into people,” says Parrott. “The element of the ‘other’ is where it hits really hard.” Despite this fear, strangers weren’t even responsible for most abductions. Media reports suggested that most missing children in the 1980s were runaways; those who were abducted were likely kidnapped by parents involved in custody disputes. It’s been suggested that the number of children abducted by true unknown strangers in Canada is two or three a year.
The culture of fearing strangers that had created streetproofing was now firmly entrenched in Toronto, where Alison’s killer was lurking, perhaps with other victims in mind. The search to find him was painstaking, and as the initial weeks after the investigation turned into months, then years, Parrott got involved to protect children from strangers like the one who murdered Alison — whoever he was.
Two weeks after Alison’s murder, Parrott decided to go back to work.
Her colleagues had been supportive from the moment Alison went missing. J. Walter Thompson immediately put up a $10,000 reward for Alison’s return, and Parrott's colleagues helped search for the girl.
At the office, Parrott began eating lunch three times a week with a colleague, Su Bundock, who was also a parent. “Once I lost Alison she just came forward,” Parrott says. “We became really close friends.”
During their lunches, Parrott talked about Alison and Su listened. Compassion wasn’t in short supply among Parrott's colleagues, though it wasn’t immediately apparent how they could do something meaningful in the wake of Alison’s murder.
Parrott doesn’t recall a moment when creating a streetproofing campaign became the outlet. She said it happened organically. It was, perhaps, the most fitting use of their talents. Who do you call when you want to persuade children to make good decisions? “Those most practiced in the art of persuasion,” Parrott says. “People who do this for brands.”
In May 1987, the group of volunteers Parrott had brought together put out a call for public suggestions on how to prevent child abductions for a new campaign called “Stay Alert… Stay Safe.” Initially, it started as pamphlets and local outreach at Toronto schools, where Parrott says they received a warm response.
In 1989 she was invited to speak at the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police conference, following her presentation at the Ontario Chiefs of Police conference. Her presentation earned her CACP's endorsement, which brought the campaign's materials to departments across the country. Police began conducting community and school outreach.
“We need an ongoing, nationwide child-awareness program,” Parrott said in 1989, while advocating for "Stay Alert... Stay Safe." “Not one that just comes up every time there's a terrible murder.”
Canadian Tire came on board that same year to help fund "Stay Alert... Stay Safe," leading to further distribution in its national network of stores. Though many companies support causes today, it was rare at the time for one to take on a social cause like streetproofing. Canadian Tire offered more than just financial support. The partnership helped get the campaign into store displays across the country and launch "Stay Alert... Stay Safe" community days, where parents could receive information about child protection and kids could have their pictures taken with Bert and Gert.
At the centre of the campaign were Bert and Gert, two wide-eyed rabbits clad in early-'90s finery — bright outfits with suspenders, tights, yellow caps, and hoverboards inspired by Back to the Future Part II. The twin rabbits were designed with long ears to indicate how aware they were of their surroundings. It was a simple, visual reminder for children to keep their radars working.
The PSAs they created focused on scenarios that kids might run into, like answering the phone or being asked for directions by a stranger. One of the most memorable PSAs turned one of streetproofing’s typical lessons on its head. It featured an attractive woman showing up at a child’s door asking to use the phone. Without opening the door, the boy tells her that his parents can’t come to the door. The attractive woman was an intentional choice, meant to show that the threat was still there even if the stranger was not a man.
"Stay Alert... Stay Safe" PSAs went into heavy rotation on Canadian television. They aired frequently during cartoon blocks on CTV and YTV. According to Parrott, the PSAs received so much airplay because of her industry connections and public interest in the topic of child safety. The J. Walter Thompson media department, responsible for placing ads for companies like Kraft and Labatt, placed the PSAs with Canadian television stations to fill unbought commercial time. Canadian children all over the country saw the PSAs, and Parrott attributes part of the campaign’s impact to the fact that "Stay Alert... Stay Safe" PSAs were designed as entertainment and aired during kids shows.
The campaign also included handbooks, presentations by police, teacher materials, and a video. The messages weren’t limited to streetproofing; they also talked about Halloween safety and bullying, among other topics. There was even a campaign created with the Toronto Transit Commission in which Bert and Gert demonstrate how to stay safe while taking public transit. By 1999, the Toronto Star reported "Stay Alert... Stay Safe" was in 8,000 elementary schools, reaching 600,000 students a year.
One of the aims of the program, according to Parrott, was to craft a broader message than simply focusing on what happened to Alison. There was, however, a lesson in the materials that was deeply personal: Children were reminded that sometimes a stranger might pretend to be a photographer.
It was paramount to Parrott that the campaign eschew fear and take a more positive approach to child safety. She recognized from the start that people don’t hear messages when they’re relayed with negative information. “Fear doesn’t work,” she says. “Fear doesn’t empower people or make them safer.”
Bert and Gert taught children to base their judgments on intuition instead of fear. Parrott draws a distinction between being empowered and disempowered in her own life. “I’ve never wanted to wear the label of victim,” she says. “The word has never resonated." The idea of good winning out over evil has always been important to Parrott. “That’s part of Alison’s memory."
While several high-profile cases of the “stranger danger” era remain unsolved, justice eventually came for Alison. In 1996, Francis Carl Roy was arrested for her murder. He had been a priority suspect a decade earlier, but was cleared by an alibi. Eventually, his DNA would be matched with a sample taken from Alison. In 1999, he went to trial and was sentenced to life in prison.
“Somehow I always had faith [Alison’s murder] would be solved,” Parrott says. “Solving it was never the major thing — living without Alison was the major thing in my life. This case is there and it can interfere with a need and ability to grieve, but it has never affected my need and ability to grieve.”
In May 1999, a month after Roy’s trial, Canadian Tire announced that it was shifting focus with its foundation arm and, as of December, "Stay Alert… Stay Safe" would no longer receive corporate funding. Over the decade that Canadian Tire funded "Stay Alert... Stay Safe," it put $5.5 million into the program. Though "Stay Alert... Stay Safe" attracted funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and continued to produce brochures and materials in the Toronto area, the days of being a prominent national campaign were over. Child Find Ontario “adopted” the program in 2006, but the anticipated investment and relaunch never came to fruition and the program quietly wound down.
Justice for Alison and the end of the heyday for "Stay Alert... Stay Safe" arrived just as streetproofing morphed into “personal safety.” Though the media had focused on the danger of strangers during the ’70s and ’80s, by the turn of the millennium it was more commonly accepted that children were more likely to be harmed by someone they knew. At times it seems like there are more dangers to children today, but experts can’t say for certain.
“It’s hard to say if it’s increased or if we’re just more aware,” says Noni Classen, director of education at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. Though the “stranger danger” era has a defining nickname, Classen says there isn’t one for today. “It’s a hard one to capture in one slogan,” she says.
Today, there is no national streetproofing program in Canada. Personal safety now falls under standard-issue curricula in schools across the country, where teachers take on a stronger role in the discussion. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection has a program, Kids in the Know, that has been widely adopted by Canadian schools. The Centre also focuses on protecting children from online sexual exploitation. Its website, Cybertip.ca, gets about 4,000 reports a month and directs them, as required, to law enforcement and child welfare agencies. The reports allow the centre to respond to the issues facing Canadian children on the internet. “Now we can actually see where the risk is,” says Classen.
"One of the big fears ... and realities now is cyber," Parrott says. "The 'other' can reach [children] on the internet."
"Stay Alert... Stay Safe" is likely the closest Canada will ever get to a truly national streetproofing program because it managed to reach children at so many touch points. Its use by police departments across the country, the national reach of the PSAs, and the partnership with one of Canada’s largest retailers is a combination that would be difficult to recreate. Breaking the streetproofing mould by establishing itself in the community and the world of children's entertainment allowed "Stay Alert... Stay Safe" to have an impact unlike anything before or since.
The world has changed dramatically since Alison was murdered, but Parrott says that even after 30 years there is no sense of closure. She compares the way she feels to going along a road. There’s a point where you’re in complete pain all of the time. But as you continue down the road, there is less pain, occurring less frequently, albeit with the same depths.
“The time in between lasts a lot longer,” Parrott says. “I’m able to come through [the pain] much more quickly. It’s part of the foundation of my soul. I don’t fight it. I relish and absorb any pieces of joy in my life that I can.”
Being a grandmother to her son Calum’s three sons is one of Parrott's biggest joys. “It was the gift that I never anticipated,” she says.
When she first held her newborn grandson in her arms, Parrott thought, “Here’s somebody else I can be vulnerable about.”