Last year saw three of the most popular e-petitions ever in Canada, as hundreds of thousands of people weighed in to endorse positions on a variety of weighty and controversial subjects.
One MP says it’s time to consider giving online petitions more real-world clout
Conservative MP Michelle Ferreri rises during question period in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)A call for the House of Commons to vote no confidence in the Liberal government is now the most-signed e-petition ever to be launched in Canada — another sign of the increasing popularity of online petitions.
The petition was put forward by a Peterborough, Ont. resident and sponsored by Conservative MP Michelle Ferreri. It calls on the House of Commons to initiate a vote of non-confidence in the Liberal government, defeat it and hold an election within 45 days.
The e-petition, now awaiting certification, garnered 386,698 signatures by the time the signing period closed just before Christmas. Ferreri frequently promoted the e-petition on social media, including in a video featuring the person who had initiated the petition.
In a statement sent to CBC News, Ferreri accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of eroding Canadians’ trust in government through his government’s record on several key issues.
“Misery is a powerful motivator and clearly this petition is elevating the voices of Canadians who are sick of the Trudeau imposed misery and want a leader and a government they can trust,” she said.
High-profile e-petitions attracted hundreds of thousands of signatures last year — part of a growing trend toward using online petitions to pressure governments on a variety of controversial subjects, such as firearms regulations and foreign policy.
The number of signatures on electronic petitions, which can be presented in the House of Commons, has been growing steadily since they were introduced in 2015, according to an analysis of House of Commons data by CBC News. The number of signatures hit a new high last year — almost 1.5 million names on about 500 e-petitions.
Most of those signatures went to just a few high-profile online petitions. Three of the five most-signed e-petitions were put forward in late 2023. A fourth — sponsored by Conservative MP Leslyn Lewis — is still open for signatures and could soon crack the top ten.
Let’s get to 400k before tomorrow Dec 24 at 3pm EST! https://t.co/TWtTYOn0C3
—@mferreriptbokawLewis’s e-petition calls for Canada to withdraw from the United Nations and its subsidiary organizations. Lewis has promoted the petition on social media as a measure to “protect our national sovereignty.”
Her position has received pushback from the Liberal benches. Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, said the petition amounts to a call for Canada to abandon its international obligations.
Surely @LeslynLewis is not supporting Canada withdrawing from the UN! That is absurd & dangerous coming from the @PierrePoilievre front bench! Is this their new foreign policy? Abandon our international obligations on human rights, women’s rights, children and so much more? https://t.co/B2TmbkDCaw
—@Rob_OliphantLewis did not reply to a request for comment from CBC News.
E-petitions — even the ones presented in the House of Commons, or those which gather significant support — do not put the government under any legal obligation to change its policies. The House of Commons website describes them as a means to “draw attention to an issue of public interest or concern” or to “request” action.
The petition sponsored by Lewis is far from the only one to call on the government to take some dramatic or controversial action. An e-petition sponsored by NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice that circulated last year called on the government to demand a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war. It drew more than a quarter of a million signatures.
Non-binding expressions of supportE-petitions can be initiated by any citizen or resident of Canada, but they must be authorized by a member of Parliament. Those MPs don’t necessarily endorse all the ideas in the petitions they sponsor, though many �— including Ferreri, Lewis and Boulerice — campaign on their behalf.
The e-petitions proceed through several stages of review and certification. Once they reach 500 signatures, they can be presented in the House of Commons by the sponsoring MP.
E-petitions are non-binding. The petition sponsored by Ferreri, for instance, would not require any sort of debate or confidence vote in the House of Commons.
The government must, however, provide written responses to petitions presented in the House. Those responses typically outline current government policy or the state of Canadian law.
Those signing e-petitions must be either citizens or residents of Canada.
Kennedy Stewart, a former NDP MP and mayor of Vancouver, was the original driver of the motion that allowed for e-petitions when Stephen Harper’s Conservative majority government was in office. With help from allies like Conservative MP Michael Chong, Stewart worked to push forward the change through a private member’s motion and eventually gained the support of seven other Conservative MPs and all other opposition parties.
Former MP and Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart was an early proponent of e-petitions. (Ben Nelms/CBC)Stewart told CBC News that, given the growing popularity of e-petitions, it may be time to review their rules and make them harder for governments to ignore.
“It didn’t go all the way where I wanted it to go. I had to make some compromises,” he said.
Stewart suggested that a petition reaching a certain threshold number of votes should automatically trigger a Commons “take-note” debate — one that does not end in a vote — or should be dealt with by a special committee.
He noted that e-petitions are well-established and exceedingly popular in the U.K., where the House of Commons has a committee set up to address them.
“I think now that we’re getting to the point where you’re getting such high numbers of signatures, that should definitely be revisited,” he said.
Stewart said the growing partisan popularity of e-petitions is a good thing, since one of his main goals almost a decade ago was to encourage civic engagement and connection to federal politics.
“Even if through the whole four-year span of a Parliament you sign one e-petition, at least you have some connection with this institution that’s often way off in Ottawa,” he said, adding he sees e-petitions as a kind of “gateway drug” for political involvement.
He said one great advantage of the House of Commons e-petition process is its confidentiality. Data gathered through e-petitions is protected and is not added to any partisan lists to help drive party fundraising or campaigning.
“You have people that maybe vote Conservative but they sign a Liberal petition … It could also encourage cross-partisanship or break down the lines,” he said.
“I think we should embrace these. We just see such a decline in democracy around the world. It’s pretty scary. And this is a good way to bolster our most important values.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christian Paas-Lang covers federal politics for CBC News in Ottawa as an associate producer with The House and a digital writer with CBC Politics. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.