Auditing the actions of the government: Petitions and environmental issues

Last week, I discovered that any Canadian resident has the right to request an audit of the government. For anything! And by law, they need to reply to your petition within 120 days. If you want to know more, read on…

For the International Day of Forests (March 21st), I went to a talk by George Stuetz, an officer with the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, which handles all environmental issues in the Office of the Auditor General (OAG). While I consider myself somewhat tuned in to politics in Canada, I had never really known much about how the OAG works, so I thought it might be interesting to share what I learned – and why it might matter to citizens and scientists interested in forests.

The main responsibility of the OAG is to observe and gather evidence about the activities of the government, and report on these activities to the House of Commons, so that lawmakers can stay informed. With an enormous amount of money and resources channeled through the government and the responsibility to keep our national affairs running smoothly (!), it’s essential that someone is checking the results. The OAG does not take on activism or suggest reforms or courses of action. It is purely there to take stock of what is and is not being done. However, by comparing Canada’s record to those of other countries, the OAG certainly has the power to identify potential improvements.

For example, in a recent review of Canada’s preparedness for handling an oil spill on the Atlantic Coast, the OAG found that  if a spill were to happen in Canada’s waters, the offending company would only be immediately liable for up to $30 million in damages.  The OAG cannot itself recommend that this be changed, but they did point out that the UK’s liability ceiling is $240 million, while Norway’s is unlimited.

The main activities of the OAG are to: 1) perform audits, 2) provide reports and guidance on management issues, 3) monitoring, and 4) petitions. I was particularly interested in the last of these activities, as it most directly concerns the average Canadian.

I work on the AdapTree project at UBC, which is a research project studying the genomic basis of adaptation to climate in lodgepole pine and interior spruce. Our goal is to provide scientific information that will help policy makers decide how to manage forestry practices and prepare for climate change. In addition to the genomics research, the AdapTree project also studies socioeconomic issues related to forestry and climate change, trying to understand how citizens view the management of our forest resources. Making bridges between science, government, and stakeholders is one of the big challenges, for putting the research we do into practice. Petitions to the OAG provide one of many possible ways that citizens can become more actively involved in governance, and help us all do our jobs more effectively.

If you have a concern or a question about how the government is conducting its affairs, you can write a formal petition to the OAG and they will register it, publish it on their website, and pass it on to the appropriate department, who are legally bound to reply within 120 days. Unlike the petitions you may be used to seeing for Members of Parliament, nobody needs to sign it but you. One concerned citizen is enough to get the ball rolling.

Some examples of petitions of an environmental nature have included:

  • Impacts of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas development
  • Progress on creation of Marine Protected Areas
  • Effect of forestry policies on fish habitat
  • Sustainability of timber harvesting in the Yukon

The list is long, and you can see all the Environmental Petitions on their website ( If you’re interested in further information, check out their website:

All in all, it was a very interesting talk about an aspect of our government that is vitally important for science-based policy. The free pizza was tasty too!

One thought on “Auditing the actions of the government: Petitions and environmental issues

  1. Pingback: Auditing the actions of the government: Petitions and environmental issues | K E Lotterhos

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