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Parliamentary petitions — like the one on public nudity — give ordinary Canadians some skin in the game

This is an excerpt from Minority Report, a weekly newsletter on federal politics. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.

A petition to end prosecutions for public nudity is one of many parliamentary petitions Canadians are using to build support for a cause and participate directly in the governing process.

Petitioners can use a paper or online petition to press the House of Commons, the government of Canada, a minister of the Crown or a member of Parliament to do something, or to stop doing something.

Filing a petition doesn’t compel the federal government to act on the issue it raises, but it does demand a reply. Since 1986, relevant government ministries have been required to issue responses to petitions within 45 days of the date when they’re presented in the House of Commons.

Anyone can visit the government’s petition website to browse the more than 60 electronic petitions now open for signatures. Parliament’s Clerk of Petitions also accepts paper petitions but they can’t be signed through the parliamentary website.

The petitions currently open address a range of political causes, from rescinding vaccine mandates to embracing proportional representation to making election day into a statutory holiday.

A petition calling for an end to laws against public nudity has almost 600 electronic signatures — a little more than the 500 required for an electronic petition to be presented in the House of Commons for a response. Paper petitions, which take a slightly different path, need only 25 signatures.

Each petition has to be sponsored by a member of the House of Commons. The nudity petition is sponsored by Elizabeth May, the Green Party’s parliamentary leader in the House. MPs aren’t required to sign the petitions they sponsor or agree with their contents.

The petition May is sponsoring calls for the repeal of Section 174 of the Criminal Code, which deals with any individual who “openly exposes or exhibits an indecent exhibition in a public place.”

The petition also wants language inserted into the Criminal Code “specifying that public nudity, in and of itself, is not indecent, obscene, or a nuisance.” The petition is open for signatures until the morning of Sept. 8. 

“To be clear, I am not a supporter of the petitioners’ goal. I am not a supporter of public nudity.  I do support the rights of citizens in a democracy to get direct answers from their government.  This is an avenue too few Canadians know is available to them,” May said in an emailed statement. 

“It is a mechanism for any and every Canadian to get their views placed directly before the government and get an answer from the government.”

A call for an end to travel restrictions

To get an electronic petition up and running, a person must first write a draft petition with the support of five Canadian citizens or permanent residents and submit it to an MP. If the MP agrees to support it, they will pass it on to the Clerk of Petitions for verification before it’s put on the website.

The petitioner then decides how long they want the petition open for signatures — 30, 60, 90 or 120 days. Once a petition’s signing period has ended, and as long as it has garnered at least 500 signatures, the clerk certifies it and presents it to the House in anticipation of a response.

While electronic petitions need 500 signatures to be presented to the House, many receive more than that. 

The most-signed petition of the last Parliament happened to be an e-petition demanding the repeal of Liberal firearms regulations. It received 230,905 signatures.

Passengers currently need to be fully vaccinated or have an exemption to board a plane in Canada. A petition sponsored by Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman is trying to roll that back. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The open electronic petition with the most signatures right now is sponsored by Ontario Conservative MP Jamie Schmale. It is calling for the federal government to introduce legislation to allow citizens to propose and repeal legislation or remove an elected official before their term is up. It has 39,993 signatures. 

The open petition with the second-highest number of signatures — just over 13,000 — calls for the termination of “pointless and discriminatory federal travel restrictions as they no longer have a measurable health benefit.”

While MPs don’t have to support the petitions they sponsor, Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman has been hammering the Liberal government in the House of Commons with questions that use similar language.

Ryan Turnbull, the Liberal MP from Whitby, is sponsoring an electronic petition with the third-highest current number of signatures. It asks Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne to help ensure pensioners are getting the full benefits promised to them by their employers.

Video cameras in slaughterhouses

The House of Commons says that, since 2015, roughly 200 e-petitions and about 1,500 paper petitions have been presented every year.

During the 43rd Parliament, from 2019 to 2021, 1,284 petitions made it through the process and received a government response.

Liberal MP for Beaches—East York Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who has a reputation as a maverick in the Liberal caucus, is sponsoring a petition that now has more than 3,660 signatures.

This petition, which is open for signatures until Aug. 24, is asking the federal government to require slaughterhouses to install video surveillance that could be accessed by Canadian Food Inspection Agency officials. 

Erskine-Smith has been active on animal welfare issues in the past. His private member’s bill seeking to ban imports and sales of cat and dog fur, and imports of shark fins, failed to get the support it needed back in 2016.

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith is sponsoring a petition asking the federal government to require slaughterhouses to install video surveillance that can be accessed by Canadian Food Inspection Agency officials. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Other petitions pursue more narrow changes to laws or regulations.

NDP MP Lisa Marie Barron is sponsoring a petition asking Canada Post and the revenue minister to introduce a temporary measure bumping up the per-kilometre allowance rates for employees by 15 per cent until the average price of gas drops below $1.75 a litre.

That petition is open until June 10 and currently has 1,950 signatures.

The parliamentary petition website lists 622 petitions, about 65 of which are electronic petitions open for signature. About 350 are closed and have received a government response; the rest remain open or have yet to get a response.

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