Historical Perspective

While the right of the citizen to petition Parliament for redress of grievance is frequently referred to as fundamental, or as a fundamental constitutional principle,3 the written Constitution is in fact silent on the matter. The recognition of this right is, however, well entrenched, based as it is on centuries-old tradition and established precedent.

Petitioning the Crown (and later Parliament) for redress of a grievance originated in the time of the 13th-century monarch Edward I. Petitioners had recourse to the Crown’s prerogative power, which was above the common law. Petitions granted to individuals and communities were in the nature of private laws; those granted to the nation as a whole made public laws.

In medieval times, before Parliament had assumed its present constitution and when its judicial and legislative functions were as yet undefined, Receivers and Triers of petitions appointed by the Crown travelled the country to hear the complaints of the people. Certain matters would be referred to local courts by the Triers, but others would be found appropriate for consideration by the High Court of Parliament.

As Parliament evolved from a primarily judicial to a predominantly legislative body with its judicial functions taken over by the courts, the character of petitions changed. By the end of the 14th century, legislative remedy was sought by individuals and corporations that petitioned Parliament or the House of Commons. At the same time, petitions from the Commons to the Crown—these being of a general nature and expressing national grievances—became frequent. The English Parliament’s first legislative acts occurred with the Commons petitioning the King for certain amendments to the law. This was the precursor to legislation by bill, as later the Commons assumed the task of drafting the desired statute which could then be accepted or rejected, but never amended, by the Crown. The 17th century saw the development of what may be considered the “modern” form of petition: addressed to Parliament, drawn up in a prescribed manner, usually dealing with public grievances.4

In Canada, provisions for petitions (long a feature of the pre-Confederation legislative assemblies) have always been part of the written rules of the House.5 The rules adopted in 1867 were somewhat expanded in 1910 and operated without substantial modification for some 76 years.6 However, starting in the immediate post-Confederation period, an extensive body of practice began to build, resulting in a collection of form and content requirements which were not codified in the Standing Orders but which had to be met in order for a petition to be received by the House.

In the early to mid 1980s, the resurgence in the use of petitions led to a situation in which the presentation of petitions occupied large amounts of the time of the House, often to the exclusion of other business.7 As well, the Chair was at times called upon to intervene or rule on matters relating to the admissibility of petitions and the manner of their presentation.8 As a consequence, the Special Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons (the McGrath Committee) made several recommendations intended to clarify the rules relating to petitions, to promote increased uniformity in their presentation, to ensure their admissibility as to content, and to provide guidelines as to form and the petitioners’ signatures.9 In 1986, the House adopted amendments to the Standing Orders based on these recommendations.10

The most significant of the changes adopted in 1986 was the requirement for petitions to be certified by the Clerk of Petitions prior to their presentation in the House.11 Also included were a number of requirements, some previously uncodified but well established by precedent and practice, to be met in order for petitions to be certified correct as to their form and content. For example, petitions must contain a prayer requesting action, must be respectful in tone and must bear original signatures. Guidelines issued by the Speaker made reference to these and to other established practices concerning the presentation of petitions during Routine Proceedings.12 A new rule provided for mandatory government replies to petitions.

Several changes were adopted in 1987, in particular a new requirement that signatories to petitions must include their addresses.13 As well, the number and sequence of Routine Proceedings rubrics was revised so that “Presenting Petitions”, formerly the fifth of nine items, became the ninth of ten.14 In 1991, a further amendment set a limit of 15 minutes on the time provided for the presentation of petitions during Routine Proceedings.15 An amendment adopted in 1994 provided that the original petitions be transmitted to the Ministry (Privy Council Office) and that government responses to petitions may be tabled by depositing them with the Clerk of the House.16

In 2003, the House simplified requirements for petitions, including the prayer for relief.17 The House amended Standing Order 36 to ensure:

  • that certification be granted to petitions even if they are addressed to the government or a Minister or a Member;
  • that the minimum number of 25 signatures with addresses be maintained, although wording would be added to deal with the situation of persons who do not have a fixed address;
  • that certification be granted even if the full prayer is not shown on every sheet, so long as the subject matter is indicated; and
  • that certification be granted even when petitions call for the expenditure of public funds.

Permitting the certification of petitions calling for the expenditure of public funds was a significant change. Historically, petitions making direct requests for the expenditure of public funds that have not received the recommendation of the Crown (royal recommendation) have not been allowed to be received by the House.18 At issue is the fundamental principle of the Crown’s initiative in respect of the expenditure of public money.19 However, since 1869, to preserve the right of the citizen to petition the House, petitions requesting the expenditure of public funds have been accepted indirectly.20 In the same spirit of facilitating citizen participation, this change aimed to make the petition process more flexible.

Another important change provisionally adopted in 2003 was that any failure by the government to respond within 45 days would be referred to the appropriate standing committee.21 The House deemed it appropriate to renew this order in the days leading up to the Thirty-Eighth general election, before subsequently making it permanent.22

The 2003 reform also considered the development of an e-petition system. The matter was further explored in 2005, but was not pursued.23 It was not until 2014, with the adoption of a motion to that effect, that the House again considered e-petitions.24 In 2015, the Standing Orders were amended to permit the publication of e-petitions on the House of Commons website and to permit Members to present such petitions.25 The amendments came into force at the start of the Forty-Second Parliament.

The 2015 amendments also permitted the signatures of Canadian citizens living abroad, rather than only those of individuals living in Canada. Last, petitions concerning matters that are sub judice were made inadmissible.