The (false) assurance of petitioning Parliament

Only in BC can petitions force the government to hold a referendum on a specific policy

By Joti Grewal | April 21, 2022 |5:00 am

The right to petition Parliament is a fundamental principle of the constitution. But there’s no guarantee the government will act on the proponent’s request—no matter how many people support the issue.

Every year, Fraser Valley residents and thousands of Canadians exercise their right to petition the powers that be to take action on an issue. The lucky ones that receive the blessing of a Member of Parliament and meet certain criteria must receive an official response from the government. But there is no promise of action.

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Like most members of Parliament, Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon MP Brad Vis is no stranger to presenting petitions to the House of Commons and he encourages his constituents to use what he calls the “citizen tool” to engage in the democratic process.

“If the government’s not doing what you want the government to do on a specific issue, then you continue to take action until you see the type of change that you want to see,” he said.

That advice has been taken up by some of his constituents dissatisfied with the lack of action from government to their petition on human trafficking. They’ve repeatedly submitted their formal request to the feds asking they “strengthen the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act to address Canada’s shortcomings” as published in the U.S. Department of State’s 20th Trafficking in Persons Report, as well as take action in other ways to fight human trafficking.

Vis has presented six such petitions about trafficking. Each gained roughly 30 signatures and resulted in the government tabling a response—the minimum requirement once a petition is closed and presented in the House of Commons by the MP who sponsored it.

Each response to the petitions was similarly worded, with the minister of public safety stating the investments Ottawa has made to address the crime.

Not all petitions meet such a lackluster fate. Some calls for action are met—though whether the petition is what motivated the government to take action is unclear.

One petition last year asked the government to use ground-penetrating radar to search all residential school sites. It garnered nearly 150 signatures before Vis presented it to the House in June. Parliament was dissolved in August, before the petition received an official response. But days before last year’s election was called, the government pledged millions to fund Indigenous communities intent on searching for unmarked graves, as well as programs to support survivors.

There is no exact science to get the government to act favourably towards a petition, but the number of supporters does hold weight, Vis said.

He is hoping that’s the case with the latest petition he presented to the House. That petition has more than 14,000 signatures calling for the federal government to work with airlines to offer direct flights from Canada to Amritsar, Punjab, India—home to Sri Harmandir Sahib (The Golden Temple), one of the most sacred Sikh temples.

How the government will respond remains to be seen.

Vis says he believes in the process, but admits the outcome really hinges on the establishment.

“Whether the government wants to take real action or just acknowledge the issue is up to the government to determine when they respond to a specific petition,” he said.

MPs can also take that approach when deciding whether or not to sponsor a petition.

Liberal MP John Aldag, like Vis, says he likes the citizen tool. (He even petitioned the government as a citizen to invest in transit.) But there has also been a time where he decided he couldn’t attach his name behind a cause.

“There was one in my first term that I declined just because it was really out there, as far as you know, being contrary to our party’s position on some issues,” he said.

There is no requirement for a politician to sponsor a constituent’s petition if they disagree with its contents. But some Fraser Valley MPs have sponsored controversial petitions in recent years.

Former MP Tamara Jansen, who preceded Aldag in the Cloverdale-Langley City riding, sponsored a petition calling for Parliament to reject a bill that would ban conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth, a practice designed to change a person’s gender identity to the sex assigned at birth.

The petition argued that “within reasonable boundaries (where a parent’s wish to hinder the sexual behaviour of their child is considered reasonable), parents have a right to raise their children as they see fit.”

Jansen sponsored similar petitions at least eight times. Some of the Jansen-backed petitions didn’t receive a response before Parliament was dissolved. Canada’s attorney general discredited the practice in his response to the other petitions.

More recently, Abbotsford MP Ed Fast sponsored a petition that called on the government to stop requiring vaccine passports for international travel. The request gained almost 42,500 supporters across the country. The petition was closed in November, but there is no record online to indicate the government has responded.

The process for paper and e-petitions varies slightly. Once a paper petition has been created, it needs a minimum of 25 signatures from Canadian citizens or residents before it can be sponsored by an MP and presented to the House. An e-petition requires only five signatures to send to an MP. It can remain open online for 30, 60 or 90 days for others to sign. Once closed, the MP can choose to present the petition to the House, giving the government 45 days to respond.

Provincially, the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia has a similar system in place for the public to access parliament. But only in BC can petitions force the government to hold a referendum on a specific policy.

BC’s Recall and Initiative Act allows registered voters to propose a new provincial law or changes to an existing one. The most famous example was when former premier of BC Bill Vander Zalm petitioned to repeal the harmonized sales tax in 2010.

The legislation sets a very high bar to meet. It’s almost, but not quite, impossible.

Proponents have 90 days to collect signatures from at least 10% of the registered voters in each of the province’s electoral districts.

Since law was passed in 1995, ElectionsBC has approved 14 initiative petition applications. Only one has been successful. Vander Zalm and like-minded activists collected more than 500,000 signatures—200,000 more than needed—to force a referendum on the tax. British Columbians voted against the HST law and once again pay PST and GST separately.

The rate of success in the House of Commons is less clear, but likely very low considering the government is not required to act on even those select petitions that do make it to Parliament in the first place. Each year about 1,500 paper petitions and 200 e-petitions are presented. It’s not known how many achieve their intended goal.

So unlike BC, presenting a petition to an MP or the House won’t guarantee action. What does have a direct cause and effect relationship: voting.

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Joti Grewal

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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