Environmental petitions are a unique way for Canadian residents—acting as individuals or on behalf of an organization—to bring their concerns and questions about environmental issues related to sustainable development to the attention of the federal ministers, with a guaranteed response. (From the website of the Environment Commissioner)
WT: I have with me today Marie-Josée Gougeon, Director of the Environment and Sustainable Development Environmental Petitions, thanks for doing this. Can you tell me what an Environmental Petition is?
Gougeon: This is a process that has been in legislation, in the Auditor General Act since 1995. It’s a process that we manage here for the Auditor General, it allows any Canadian resident, either a person or on behalf of an organization, to call upon federal Ministers with questions they have on a matter related to Environment or Sustainable Development.
This petition process does not require many signatures; just one person or organization can submit through us, questions that they would like to have answers on, from a single Minister or Ministers. This is for a matter under Federal jurisdiction, directed to the federal entity or entities to which it applies.
WT: What were your findings through this report? Are there not enough petitions, or should there be more?
Gougeon: We don’t have any control on the number of petitions that we receive. We are aware that the more Canadians know about this process, the more we will get petitions. The amount has been level for the last ten years or so, we receive between 13 to 16 petitions a year, this year was 14. In our legislation, we have to report to Parliament each year on the number of petitions received and the responses from the departments on behalf of the Ministers. They have 120 days to respond to petitions questions once they receive it. The annual report really is for legislation, we need to report to Parliament, that’s what we do annually.
WT: I’m reading some of the case examples. Do you find that going through the auditing process that federal government replied to all petitions, or just some of them? What did you find when you looked to know how petitions are treated?
Gougeon: All petitions were responded to; one hundred percent of the petitions receive a response. What happens sometimes, (the response) may come in a bit late. Through the legislation, Ministers provide notification that they need more than 120 days to respond, but they have to inform the petitioner (and us) about that delay; in one instance there was a small delay (this past year).
WT: So, if I look at a situation in a watershed, a lake or a river, I can submit a petition as an individual Canadian?
Gougeon: Actually, that’s the difference between this process and what we usually think of a petition. It’s really a matter of having questions, that any Canadian resident would like to submit to a Minister. For example, if someone is concerned about something that is happening in their watershed, or near their home, they can submit some questions related to that. We then relay (the petition) to the appropriate Minister for a response. As I say, the key factor here it is that it would be a responsibility that is under a federal jurisdiction. There are a lot of issues that relate to water under federal jurisdiction. One thing I could recommend, anyone that wants to submit a petition can go to our website, we have there the Petitions catalog, we have summaries of petitions over the last five years, questions that were already submitted. That will give a good idea what a petition could look like.
WT: I’m looking at the Waterton Lakes case; there was action that came out of that petition, there was even money, a budget that was redirected on account of a petition, can you tell us a bit about that?
Gougeon: Oftentimes what happens with petitions, is that a topic can be of interest to Canadians (generally). We are not responsible for the response level provided by the Department; we don’t even audit them per se. The level of response as provided by the Department relates to the value of the issue. Sometimes petitioners will use the petitions process to bring awareness, attention to other matters. Sometimes this goes along where things are happening on the government side, if then we receive a petition that gives (government) a push to do something.
I can also provide the example of last year: in each annual report, for several years, we provide case studies on petitions, and we also write what happened, the response and recent actions that have been taken by the government.
In a case in 2019, batteries were found in the St. Lawrence River, from the Canadian Coast Guard Navigation, through that petition, they got a response, that the Department was going to clean up the batteries that were found. Since then, the Department also said they would direct this issue to where other batteries are found, they were going to clean them up and take them out. It’s hard to say if the petition actually triggered that government action, sometimes it’s done in the same way.
WT: Are you saying the petition process should be promoted or put out there a whole lot more, is that an accurate statement? Do you think more people need to know about this?
Gougeon: We are not necessarily there to advocate for the process, we are there to administer the process. Certainly (petition) is a tool for Canadians to use. We try to build awareness of it as much as we can, on our website, through social media. We try to highlight some of the petitions, we certainly will be trying to do that more. Sometimes we do presentations through university courses. We so try to promote, when the Commissioner for the Environment or our staff do presentations or speak about this process so it can be known by as many as possible. We hope that more and more people are aware of (Environmental Petitions), it’s there for them to use.
WT: Thank you for doing this, I think our readers will be fascinated to know they can do this, and something will happen.
Gougeon: It was a pleasure.