UPDATE: December 10, 2015
The federal government of Canada implemented an e-petition platform that will allow petitions to be signed and circulated online. Petitions made through this tool will require a government response after a minimum of 500 signatures are obtained. This e-petition platform was launched Friday December 4. However, this does not mean that all online petitions currently circulating now hold legal standing. The e-petition platform has a thorough review process which includes sponsorship from a Member of Parliament and a review of the wording surrounding the petition to meet petition guidelines. Once these criteria are met, the petition can be circulated online for 120 days. If you sign the petition, your information is permanently published and needs to include your name, address, telephone and email.
This is a great step forward to make petitions more accessible and the tool has already seen a few petitions go live.
There are petitions for everything these days; petitions to express outrage towards foreign investors, transportation programs, artists performing at festivals, menu items, dislike of a television show’s ending, deporting celebrities, declaring the day after the Superbowl a national holiday… . These pop-culture petitions seek to garner attention by mimicking the format of a traditional petition, which set out to gather names in support of asking a government to revisit an issue around a certain topic while in session.
During our daily media monitoring we’re seeing an influx of online petitions supporting or denouncing different aspects of British Columbia’s natural resource industry. This raises the question, what constitutes a petition? And does your online “signature” mean anything?
Requirements from the House of Commons and Legislative Assembly of British Columbia state, that in order to be accepted, petitions must be hand delivered, hold original signatures, and contain verification that the signatories are Canadian citizens. The description of the petition is also important and must include the specific bill or law the petition is regarding.
The Canadian House of Commons has proposed the acceptance of an e-petition system in the past; however, it is unclear when this process might be in place. Currently, the only governments in Canada accepting online petitions are the Northwest Territories and the Province of Quebec. Both jurisdictions require the online petition to be created and distributed through their individual e-petition websites, not through any website platform.
In effect, online petitions do not contain the appropriate information to be legally recognized. They do not present original signatures and many do not address a specific bill, rather asking for an opinion on a public issue. Furthermore, it is impossible to verify who the signatories are with just an email address and without in-person verification of identity, there is a risk of false information.
Taking these legalities into consideration we have to be careful when we encounter online petitions, which can be more appropriately categorized as declarations. They can raise awareness and gain the attention of media and government officials, but they are not a formal submission. While the legalities surrounding identification prevent these online campaigns from formally engaging in the political context, it still provides a venue to engage and express a point of view.
- Amanda Jarl