PARLIAMENT of CANADA
House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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Current Guidelines for Petitions

Petitions have always been subject to verification by an official of the House of Commons. Amendments to the rules, adopted in 1910, make the first mention of the Clerk of Petitions as the individual charged with this responsibility. [16]  Until 1986, such verification took place after Members presented their petitions; the Standing Orders now provide for petitions to be certified correct as to form and content by the Clerk of Petitions prior to their presentation to the House. [17]  Petitions not meeting the form and content requirements cannot be certified and only certified petitions can be presented to the House. [18] 

Those engaged in drafting petitions may consult the Clerk of Petitions to ensure that the proposed text is in keeping with the rules and practices of the House. Once a petition is signed and ready to be certified, it is sent by a Member to the Clerk of Petitions, accompanied by a written request for certification. The Clerk of Petitions examines each petition received, including its signatures, to ensure that the form and content are in keeping with the requirements. If the petition is in order, a certificate signed by the Clerk of Petitions is attached and the petition is returned to the Member for presentation to the House. If the petition cannot be certified, it is returned to the Member with an explanatory note.

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. [19] 

Form

A petition typically begins with a superscription identifying it as a petition and indicating that it is addressed to the House of Commons. This is followed by a statement identifying the petitioners; the petitioners then draw the attention of the House 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 the House to take in response to their grievance. Then follow the signatures and addresses of the petitioners. The recommended form of petition is reproduced as Figure 22.2.

Figure 22.2 – Form of a petition
An image showing the format to be followed for the first and subsequent pages of a typical petition.

Addressed to the House of Commons

As the House of Commons is the body being petitioned, it is therefore the first criterion of acceptability that petitions be addressed to the House of Commons, or to the House of Commons in Parliament assembled, [20]  rather than to the Government, to the Prime Minister, to individual Ministers or Members, or to some outside authority. The words “To the House of Commons” or “To the House of Commons in Parliament Assembled” should normally appear at the beginning of the petition.

Prayer

Petitions, to be certified for presentation to the House, must contain a prayer; that is, a concise, clearly worded and respectful request that the House 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. [21]  The action sought must fall within Parliament’s jurisdiction. [22]  A petition pertaining to a matter falling outside of Parliament’s authority to act — a matter under the jurisdiction of a provincial or municipal government, for example — could not be certified for presentation to the House. [23] 

Written, Typewritten or Printed on Paper of Usual Size

To be certified, petitions must be written, typewritten or printed on paper of usual size. [24]  The requirement for petitions to be written or printed has been part of the written rules since Confederation. [25]  Petitions with photocopied text are acceptable. Paper of “usual size” is interpreted nowadays to mean 21.5 cm x 28 cm (8.5 x 11 inches) or 21.5 cm x 35.5 cm (8.5 x 14 inches) sheets. Petitions produced on materials other than paper do not meet this requirement; likewise petitions of a non-standard size will not be certified. [26] 

Erasures or Interlineations

To be certified, a petition must be free of erasures or interlineations in its text; [27]  that is, the text of a petition may not be altered by erasing words, crossing out words, or adding words or commentary.

Attachments, Appendices or Lengthy Extracts

In accordance with a practice established in 1876, a petition is not in order if it has letters, affidavits, or other documents appended or attached to it. [28]  Material such as maps, pictures, news articles, explanatory or supporting statements attached or appended to petitions will render them unacceptable for certification and presentation to the House. The proscription on attachments and appendices applies to extraneous matter written, photocopied or affixed on the petition itself. [29]  Petitions incorporating lengthy extracts from other documents or publications have also been deemed irregular. [30]  A return address, however, may appear on the petition without constituting an obstacle to its certification.

Subject Matter Indicated on Every Sheet

When a petition consists of more than one sheet of signatures and addresses, each succeeding page is to contain an indication of the subject matter of the petition [31]  so that petitioners are made fully aware of the nature of the document they are supporting. This is generally achieved by a notation at the top of each additional page, as shown in Figure 22.2.

Language

Petitions may be written in either of the official languages. [32]  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. [33]  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 therefor provide a remedy, humbly sheweth” and closing with the words “and your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray”. A special committee recommended in 1985 that this traditional language, which it saw as archaic, need not be used. [34]  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 22.2, 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.

Content

Matters Under the Authority of the House

It has been said that the prayer of a petition must request action which is within the powers of the House to take. [35]  Therefore, it follows that the petition as a whole must set forth a case for which the House has the authority to intervene. [36]  Matters of provincial or municipal responsibility or those which properly belong before a court of law or tribunal may not be made the subject of a petition to be presented to the House of Commons. 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. [37] 

Requesting Expenditure of Public Funds

Historically, petitions making direct requests for the expenditure of public funds which have not received the recommendation of the Crown (Royal Recommendation) have not been allowed to be presented to the House. [38]  At issue is the fundamental principle of the Crown’s initiative in respect of the expenditure of public money. [39]  Many rulings from the Chair have upheld the practice of rejecting petitions involving the expenditure of public revenue [40]  while at the same time seeking to preserve, without setting undue limitation on, the time-honoured right of the citizen to petition the House for redress of a grievance. In 1869, when a petition was called into question because it appeared to request a grant of public funds not recommended by the Crown, the Speaker defined it as a request for legislation rather than money, thus creating a distinction between direct requests, which could not be accepted, and indirect requests (later described as requests for legislation or for “such measures as the House may think expedient to take”), which could be accepted. [41]  In 1987, the Speaker upheld the decision of the Clerk of Petitions to reject a petition calling upon Parliament to provide federal funding to the provinces and territories for non-profit child care, but went on to make the following observation:

The right to petition Parliament is fundamental to our parliamentary system, and it is not unreasonable to assume that the remedy, in many a situation, could only be found through the expenditure of public funds. A petitioner is entitled to petition for relief in a burdensome situation, so that a mere change in wording could well render a petition in order which might otherwise be out of order. A petition praying for the enactment of a measure which would provide the relief being sought might avoid the restriction imposed by our practice. [42] 

Signatures and Addresses

From 1867 until 1986, it was possible for a lone individual to petition the House. The amendments to the Standing Orders adopted in 1986 introduced a new requirement that a petition, to be certified, would have to contain at least 25 signatures. [43]  In 1987, a further amendment added the requirement for addresses as well as signatures. [44]  Petitioners must not sign for anyone else. Written addresses may be in the form of complete home addresses or simply the names of the petitioners’ town and province of residence. Petitions must contain original signatures written directly on the document and not pasted or otherwise transferred to it. [45]  In 1872, a petition received by telegraph was ruled out of order because it contained no original signatures; [46]  in 1986, the Speaker ruled that for the same reason, photocopied signatures were unacceptable. [47]  A Member may sign a petition but should ask another Member to present it. [48]  The signatures of Members inscribed on petitions are not counted towards the required 25 signatures and addresses. [49] 

Petitions signed exclusively by non-resident aliens have traditionally been found unacceptable. [50]  However in 1984, a petition signed by Canadian citizens as well as by foreigners was received with the unanimous consent of the House; [51]  in a similar situation arising in 1990, the Speaker ruled that the right of Canadians to petition their House of Commons would be better served if such petitions, provided they were otherwise in order, could be presented notwithstanding the presence of “the occasional signature of a non-Canadian not resident in Canada”. [52] 


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