Guidelines for Petitions
This section presents the characteristics common to both paper petitions26 and e-petitions. For a general overview of a typical petition process, see Figure 22.2, “Typical Petition Process”.
Petitions have always been subject to verification by an official of the House of Commons. Amendments to the rules, adopted in 1910, made the first mention of the Clerk of Petitions as the person charged with this responsibility.27 Until 1986, such verification took place after Members had presented their petitions. The Standing Orders now require petitions to be certified correct as to form and content by the Clerk of Petitions prior to being published online or presented to the House.28 Petitions not meeting the form and content requirements cannot be certified, and only certified petitions can be presented to the House.29
Before gathering signatures for a paper petition or submitting an e-petition, the petitioner may consult the Clerk of Petitions to ensure that the proposed text is in keeping with the rules and practices of the House.
A petition typically begins with a superscription identifying it as a petition and indicating that it is addressed to the House of Commons, the government, a Minister or a Member. This is followed by a statement identifying the petitioners. The petitioners then draw the attention of the addressee to a statement of grievance, which is generally set out in paragraph form. The final and essential part of the petition is a request, called a “prayer”, in which the petitioners specify the action they wish to see taken in response to their grievance. Then follow the signatures and addresses of the petitioners. The recommended form of petition is reproduced as Figure 22.3, “Form of a Petition”.
Language, Wording and Style
Petitions may be written in either of the official languages.30 They should be respectful and temperate in tone, and there should be no disrespect to the Sovereign or offensive imputation on the character or conduct of Parliament, the courts or any other constituted authority.31 For many years, it was customary for petitions to be written in a formal style of expression, opening with the words:
To the Honourable the House of Commons in Parliament assembled. The Petition of the undersigned … who now avail themselves of their ancient and undoubted right thus to present a grievance common to your Petitioners in the certain assurance that your honourable House will therefore provide a remedy, humbly sheweth
and closing with the words “and your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray”. In 1985, a special committee recommended that this traditional language, which it saw as archaic, no longer be used.32 While petitions couched in the formal style continue to be presented, petitions employing more contemporary wording are equally acceptable to the House, as long as the import is the same. For example, in Figure 22.3, “Form of a Petition”, the opening and closing formulae quoted above do not appear, and the petitioners “request” that Parliament respond to their grievance rather than “humbly pray and call upon Parliament” to do so.
Until 2003, all petitions were to be addressed to the House of Commons or to the House of Commons in Parliament assembled. Since 2003, certification has also been granted to petitions addressed to the Government of Canada as a whole, a particular Minister of the Crown or a Member of Parliament.33 In practice, petitions addressed to more than one of these addressees are also accepted.
Petitions, to be certified for presentation to the House, must contain a prayer, that is, a clear, proper and respectful request that the House, the government, a Minister or a Member take, or refrain from taking, some sort of action in response to an alleged grievance. Petitions without prayers, that is, documents consisting solely of statements of opinion or statements of grievance, cannot be accepted as petitions.34 The action sought may also call for the expenditure of public funds.35
Matters Under the Authority of the House or the Federal Government
The prayer of a petition must request action which is within the powers of the House or the federal government to take. Therefore, it follows that the petition as a whole must set forth a case where the House, the government, a Minister or a Member has the authority to intervene.36 A petition pertaining to a matter that falls outside the jurisdiction of the House or of the federal government (a matter under the jurisdiction of the courts, or of a provincial or municipal government, for example) cannot be certified for presentation to the House.37 A petition requesting two or more actions may still be certified if one of the requests for intervention is not within the jurisdiction of the House or of the federal government.38
Over the years, the House has chosen to delegate certain matters to the courts and other administrative and regulatory bodies. Petitions dealing with matters which the House has delegated to another body have not always been found acceptable.39
By virtue of parliamentary privilege, the House has the inherent right to decide matters affecting its own membership. The power of the House to expel one of its Members derives from its traditional authority to determine whether Members are qualified to sit. Therefore, petitions requesting the expulsion of a Member of Parliament have been considered unacceptable.40
The sub judice convention
A petition may not concern a matter that is sub judice.41 This convention, which has long restricted the content of Members’ speeches so as not to interfere with the judiciary, was extended to the content of petitions in 2015.
For certification, the threshold for valid signatures is 25 for paper petitions and 500 for electronic petitions. To be valid, the signature must be that of a Canadian citizen or a resident of Canada.42 There is no minimum age requirement for anyone signing a petition, and one person cannot sign for a group.
A Member may sign a petition, but should ask another Member to present it.43 However, the signatures of Members inscribed on petitions are not counted toward the valid signatures.
Last, any forgery or fraud in the preparation of petitions or signatures, or any complicity in or knowledge thereof, may be dealt with as a breach of privilege.44