Right to Petition the National Assembly, President Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, February 1, 2001

Article excerpt

Background: On three occasions in recent months, the matter of the exercise of the right to petition the National Assembly has been brought before the Assembly. The President identified four questions, all of which concern the impact of the codification of the right to petition in the Quebec Charter of human rights and freedoms on the procedure to be followed in exercising that right in the context of parliamentary debate. (Section 21 of the Charter provides that every person has a right to petition the National Assembly for the redress of grievances.)

The first question is: May the President of the Assembly block the tabling of a petition which puts the conduct of a Member in issue? The second is: May a person petition the National Assembly directly, that is, without the intermediary of a Member? The third is: Does section 21 of the Charter of human rights and freedoms require parliamentarians as a group to dispose of the redress petitioned for? And the fourth is: Must a follow-up - answers in particular - be given to a petition addressed to the National Assembly?

The Decision (President Charbonneau): At the origin of the question of whether the President may block the tabling of a petition which puts a Member's conduct in issue are the following facts. On May 23, 2000, I refused to allow a non-conforming petition to be presented in the National Assembly by an MNA from the Government Party. A group of citizens had asked the Member to present a petition whose contents impugned the legitimacy of the mandate given to another MNA by the electorate in the riding concerned.

The second question and third questions arose from the same facts. On June 2, 2000, a citizen of Quebec instructed his attorneys to request the President of the National Assembly to place a petition on the Order Paper praying the Assembly to adjudge his contentious claim against the Government.

In so acting, this person did not avail himself of the provisions of Standing Order 62 and the following, which establish the procedure for presenting petitions to the Assembly, as he is of the opinion that section 21 of the Charter of human rights and freedoms allows him to petition the Assembly directly and without being required to follow the procedure set out in the Standing Orders. The procedure specifies, among other things, that a petition is presented through a Member of the Assembly. On requesting that the petition be placed on the Order Paper, the petitioner also demanded that the Assembly hold a debate and a vote on the subject-matter of the petition, for it is his contention that the Charter of human rights and freedoms imposes on the Assembly, as a constitutional duty, a function in the administration of justice.

The fourth question was raised by the Member for Nelligan. In a letter dated September 18, 2000 the honourable Member asked me whether any action had resulted from a petition concerning the damage insurance industry which he had laid before the Assembly on the preceding May 30 on behalf of a constituent. The Member for Nelligan suggested in his letter that all petitions should be given an official response. In his opinion, a letter could be addressed to the Minister, department or body directly concerned and the reply could be forwarded to the Member who presented the petition.

Principles of Parliamentary Law

We learn from writings in British parliamentary law that the right to petition the Crown or Parliament for the redress of grievances is a fundamental right that dates back to before the reign of King Edward I, in the thirteenth century.

The right to petition, as it is known today in England, found expression in two resolutions passed by the House of Commons in 1669. On reading those resolutions, it is clear, however, that the right to petition is counterbalanced by the privilege of the chamber of deputies to determine on what conditions a petition may be received. …