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House of Commons Procedure and Practice

Second Edition, 2009

 
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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.[20] 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 presented to the House.[21] Petitions not meeting the form and content requirements cannot be certified and only certified petitions can be presented to the House.[22]

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 has been signed and is 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 meet 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.[23]

*   Form

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 22.2.

Addressee

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.[24]

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.

Prayer

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, called the “remedy”, 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.[25] The action sought may also call for the expenditure of public funds.[26] 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 a provincial or municipal government, for example—cannot be certified for presentation to the House.[27] 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.[28]

Written, Typewritten or Printed on Paper of Usual Size

To be certified, petitions must be written, typewritten or printed on paper of usual size.[29] The requirement for petitions to be written or printed has been part of the written rules since Confederation.[30] Electronic petitions cannot be certified.[31] 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.[32]

Alterations or Interlineations

To be certified, a petition must be free of alterations or interlineations in its text:[33] 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.[34] 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.[35] The proscription on attachments and appendices includes extraneous matter written, photocopied or affixed on the petition itself.[36] Petitions incorporating lengthy extracts from other documents or publications have also been deemed irregular.[37] A return address, however, may appear on the petition without constituting an obstacle to its certification. A petition printed on the back of another document (such as on the back of a Member’s householder or ten percenter) cannot be certified.[38]

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[39] so that petitioners are made fully aware of the nature of the document they are supporting. This is generally achieved by including the text of the prayer or a summary of the prayer at the top of each additional page, as shown in Figure 22.2.

Language, Wording and Style

Petitions may be written in either of the official languages.[40] 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.[41] 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”. A special committee recommended in 1985 that this traditional language, which it saw as archaic, no longer be used.[42] 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.

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*   Content

Matters Under the Authority of the House or the Federal Government

It has been said that 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.[43] 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.[44]

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.[45]

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 received by the House.[46] At issue is the fundamental principle of the Crown’s initiative in respect of the expenditure of public money.[47] Many rulings from the Chair have upheld the practice of disallowing petitions involving the expenditure of public revenue[48] 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.[49] 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.[50]

In September 2003, the Standing Orders were amended to allow certification even when petitions call for the expenditure of public funds.[51]

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.[52] In 1987, a further amendment added the requirement for addresses as well as signatures.[53] Since 2003, signatures must be accompanied by the petitioners’ addresses, when they have a fixed place of residence.[54] Petitioners must not sign for anyone else. If a petitioner cannot sign because of illness or a disability, this must be noted on the petition and the note signed by a witness. There is no minimum age requirement for anyone signing a petition. One person cannot sign for an assembly. Written addresses may be in the form of complete home addresses, or simply the names of the petitioners’ municipality and province of residence, or province and postal code.

Petitions must contain original signatures written directly on the document and not pasted on or otherwise transferred to it.[55] In 1872, a petition received by telegraph was ruled out of order because it contained no original signatures;[56] in 1986, the Speaker ruled that for the same reason, photocopied signatures were unacceptable.[57] Some signatures and addresses must appear on the first sheet with the text of the prayer. Signatures and addresses may appear on the reverse of the petition. A Member may sign a petition, but should ask another Member to present it.[58] However, the signatures of Members inscribed on petitions are not counted toward the required 25 signatures and addresses.[59]

Petitions signed exclusively by non‑resident aliens have traditionally been found unacceptable.[60] However, in 1984 a petition signed by Canadian citizens as well as by foreigners was received with the unanimous consent of the House;[61] 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”.[62] The signatures of non-residents are not counted toward the required 25 signatures and addresses.

Committee Selection

The Standing Orders require that the government reply to a petition within 45 calendar days. If a petition remains without a response at the expiration of this time, a standing committee of the House is required to look into the reason. A certified petition returned to a Member will be accompanied by a form, to be signed by the Member, on which the Member must indicate the committee to which the matter of the failure of the Ministry to respond to the petition within 45 days will be referred if applicable. This form must accompany the certified petition when the petition is presented to the House.



[20] Journals, April 29, 1910, pp. 535‑6, Debates, cols. 8365‑7. See also Rules of the House of Commons of Canada, 1910, Rule 75.

[21] Standing Order 36(1).

[22] On rare occasions, petitions failing to satisfy form and content requirements (and thus not certified) have been presented with the unanimous consent of the House (Journals, February 18, 1987, p. 503, Debates, p. 3568; Journals, June 12, 2003, p. 918, Debates, pp. 7222-3; Journals, November 2, 2007, p. 137, Debates, p. 753). On June 12, 2003, the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons rose to speak on this issue, noting that the petitions in question seemed to comply with the new criteria set out in the Fourth Report of the Special Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of Commons, presented to the House earlier in the sitting (Journals, p. 915). That report was concurred in on September 18, 2003 (Journals, p. 995). In an unusual proceeding in 1992, unanimous consent was given for an uncertified petition to be “received” by the House—although the Standing Orders no longer provide for petitions to be received—and referred to a standing committee for consideration (Journals, November 18, 1992, p. 2070).

[23] Bourinot, Sir J.G., Parliamentary Procedure and Practice in the Dominion of Canada, 4th ed., edited by T.B. Flint, Toronto: Canada Law Book Company, 1916, p. 237. While doubts have been expressed from time to time concerning the authenticity of signatures (see, for example, Debates, May 21, 1885, pp. 2023‑9; October 28, 1983, pp. 28475‑9), no breach of privilege alleging fraud or forgery in the preparation of petitions has yet been found.

[24] Standing Order 36(2)(a).

[25] Journals, March 22, 1876, p. 180; Debates, April 23, 1879, pp. 1453‑4.

[26] Standing Order 36(2)(b).

[27] On one occasion pre‑dating the requirement for certification, a Member presented a petition concerning safety at a certain street intersection in her constituency. The Speaker suggested that such petitions be directed to the competent municipal authority. The Clerk of Petitions later reported that this petition had failed to meet the requirements as to form (Debates, June 11, 1985, p. 5648; Journals, June 12, 1985, p. 796).

[28] May, 23rd ed., p. 936.

[29] Standing Order 36(2)(c).

[30] See Rule 86, adopted on December 20, 1867 (Journals, p. 122).

[31] Debates, May 29, 2000, pp. 7152-3. In September 2003, the Special Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of Commons recommended that a system for electronic petitions be developed and asked the Clerk to develop options and a proposal for electronic petitions, for submission to and approval by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. See the Fourth Report of the Special Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of Commons, par. 41 and 42, presented to the House on June 12, 2003 (Journals, p. 915), and concurred in on September 18, 2003 (Journals, p. 995). In February 2005, the Clerk, accompanied by other House officials, appeared before the Committee to present the key issues involved in using the Parliament of Canada Web site for this purpose, including the authenticity of signatures, the uniformity of the rules and practices that apply to paper petitions as well as to electronic petitions, the level of interactivity with and participation by citizens, the culture of petitions, and the cost and infrastructure. See Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, Evidence, February 3, 2005, Meeting No. 18, pp. 1‑13. See also the Twenty-Sixth Report of the Committee, presented to the House and concurred in on February 9, 2005 (Journals, pp. 407‑8), in which the Committee mentioned that Members still had questions and concerns, and that it would report to the House on electronic petitions at a future date. No report has been tabled since then.

[32] Prior to the adoption of this rule, petitions of unusual style were presented from time to time and judged by the Clerk of Petitions to be in accordance with the prevailing requirements as to form. See, for example, Debates, December 10, 1974, p. 2099; Journals, December 11, 1974, p. 187; Debates, April 6, 1982, p. 16196; Journals, April 7, 1982, p. 4698‑A.

[33] Standing Order 36(2)(d).

[34] Debates, March 28, 1876, pp. 867‑8; February 23, 1978, p. 3200.

[35] On one occasion, a Member received unanimous consent to present a white ribbon with his petition (Journals, November 26, 2004, p. 265, Debates, p. 1978).

[36] May, 23rd ed., pp. 934-5.

[37] Bourinot, 4th ed., p. 235.

[38] The Board of Internal Economy defines a householder as “printed material used by Members to communicate their activities to their constituents”, and a ten percenter as “printed or photocopied material with the name of the Member reproduced in a quantity not exceeding 10 percent of the total number of households in a Member’s constituency”.

[39] Standing Order 36(2)(e).

[40] Bourinot, 4th ed., p. 235. See also the Official Languages Act, R.S. 1985, c. 31 (4th Supp.), s. 22. Petitions written in a language other than English or French may be accepted provided that the text of the petition is also available in one of the two official languages.

[41] Bourinot, 4th ed., p. 231. See, for example, Journals, March 30, 1905, p. 234; April 5, 1909, p. 234.

[42] See p. 45 of the Third Report of the Special Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, presented to the House on June 18, 1985 (Journals, p. 839). The modern wording was not, however, proposed until several years later by the Clerk of Petitions with the approval of the Clerk of the House.

[43] Journals, February 16, 1956, p. 163; June 7, 1972, pp. 361‑2.

[44] For example, petitions questioning the return of a Member were not received because the House had vested in the courts the responsibility for matters relating to the election of Members (Journals, April 20, 1874, p. 82; February 15, 1881, pp. 199‑200). On the other hand, petitions concerning the Canadian Radio‑television and Telecommunications Commission, the independent agency regulating the broadcasting system, have at different times been rejected (Journals, June 7, 1972, pp. 361‑2; October 24, 1973, pp. 591‑2) and accepted (Debates, April 30, 1984, p. 3235; Journals, May 1, 1984, p. 400).

[45] See Maingot, J.P.J., Parliamentary Privilege in Canada, 2nd ed., Montreal: House of Commons and McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997, pp. 47, 188, 247; May, 23rd ed., p. 146; Harvey v. New Brunswick (Attorney General), [1996] 2 S.C.R. 876; Canada (House of Commons) v. Vaid, [2005] 1 S.C.R. 667. See also Chapter 4, “The House of Commons and Its Members”.

[46] Journals, May 7, 1868, p. 297. For historical background on the principles underlying this long‑standing convention, see Redlich, Vol. III, pp. 119‑24.

[47] See section 54 of the Constitution Act, 1867 (R.S. 1985, Appendix II, No. 5), which states that the House shall not adopt or pass any vote, resolution, address or bill for the appropriation of any part of the public revenue that has not been first recommended to the House by a message from the Governor General, that is, by a royal recommendation.

[48] For example, see Journals, February 5, 1912, p. 181; August 24, 1946, p. 767. A petition praying for an increase to the old age pension was allowed because the Royal Recommendation had been granted to a bill having the same purpose (Journals, May 19, 1947, p. 423).

[49] Journals, April 20, 1869, pp. 22‑3.

[50] Debates, June 30, 1987, p. 7821.

[51] Standing Order 36(2)(b).

[52] Journals, February 13, 1986, p. 1710.

[53] Journals, June 3, 1987, pp. 1016, 1026.

[54] Standing Order 36(2)(g).

[55] Standing Order 36(2)(f).

[56] Journals, May 3, 1872, p. 80.

[57] Debates, January 24, 1986, p. 10143.

[58] May, 23rd ed., p. 938.

[59] Standing Order 36(2)(g).

[60] See, for example, Journals, October 5, 1983, pp. 6264‑5.

[61] Debates, November 20, 1984, pp. 412‑3.

[62] Debates, December 19, 1990, pp. 16963‑4.

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