Richmond, B.C. debates politics of Chinese-only signs ahead of election

Last year Richmond City Council voted against a ban on Chinese-only signs. (CBC )

The hottest language debate may no longer be in Quebec but rather British Columbia, where a city in Vancouver’s suburbs is again embroiled in a battle over whether English should be included on signs targeting the city’s Chinese community.

And thanks to the impending municipal election, the language debate has received a higher profile than ever before, with several council candidates weighing in for and against mandating the use of English.

Richmond, B.C., has one of the most significant Chinese communities in Canada, with more than half its population of 205,000 descending from the country.

As a result, companies are targeting the Chinese community through billboards and other advertisements written entirely in Chinese.

The debate routinely draws comparisons to Quebec, where “language police” have garnered headlines for seeking and destroying company signs posted exclusively in English.

Last week, the City of Richmond voted to seek a legal opinion to determine what, if anything, they could do about Chinese-only signs.

Coun. Evelina Halsey-Brandt brought forward the motion which asked city staff to look into whether council had the right to regulate language use on store signs and advertisements.

"As the discussion in the community regarding the use of English on signs escalates, I think it is really important that both council and the citizens and residents of Richmond know whether or not council actually has the legal ability to regulate the use of English on signs," she said at the time.

The question will dig into whether that right extends to mandating that signs on private property contain a certain percentage of English.

This hasn’t stopped council hopefuls from taking sides, however. Halsey-Brandt had previously opposed establishing language rules, but said she changed her mind. She isn’t running for re-election.

RITE Richmond, a local group running two candidates, announced they would “pursue steps to address the issue,” though one candidate, Carol Day, stopped short of backing a bylaw – instead telling the National Post she would focus on encouraging businesses to include English.

Independent candidate Janos Bergman, however, told the Post that Chinese-only signs “serve to exclude the rest of the community and this is very un-Canadian.”

On his Facebook page, council candidate Henry Yao says that it is important for cultures to remain unique in a multi-cultural society, but that harmony relies on communication.

"This is why I wish to emphasize the importance of English on all signs in Richmond," he writes. “Having a common language will help people to communicate and understand each other. If we all live together and do not share a common language, we will become an exclusive society of strangers.”

The issue of Chinese-language signs has been a long-running debate in Richmond, and some other communities around Vancouver. Last year, two residents presented a 1,000-signature petition to council asking for a “minimum amount of English on any signage, shops or advertising.”

Earlier this year, a Chinese-only bus shelter advertisement for Crest tooth care products re-ignited the row. Chinese-only advertisements in nearby West Vancouver also drew criticism this summer.

During last week’s council discussion, it was noted that some signage for building developments in the community had been posted in all-Chinese. While this may pose problems for the community, it seems that Chinese-only signs are for the most part entirely legal.

Last week Wayne Mercer, Richmond’s former city manager, wrote a letter to the Vancouver Sun suggesting the matter was beyond council’s purview.

He said that, unlike Quebec and its “language police,” British Columbia had no control over the language used in private signage.

Mercer wrote:

My position was based on regular discussions on the topic with senior management and the city’s solicitor. Certainly, the city would have the say regarding any signage on public property such as street signs, public building signage, required development application signage, etc.

My discussion with residents would also point out that if a business, through the exclusive use of Chinese-only signage, wishes to forego business from the majority of Richmond residents (including young Chinese residents who do not read the language), then that is certainly their prerogative and would no doubt affect their bottom line.

The matter of language rights in Quebec has rages for far longer however, with the Charter of French Language mandating the prominent use of French.

The province’s “language police” have moved against companies and stores whose advertisements and signs are exclusively in English.

There are certainly comparisons to be made between Quebec and what is happening in Richmond. Quebec’s debate is about mandating an official language over English - considered to be a threat to the cultural fabric of the province. Richmond’s debate is about mandating English over a growing-but-unofficial language, for the same reason.

Whether a bylaw enforcing English signs, or a policy of gentle encouragement, is appropriate is a question that will continue to be debated well after the municipal election campaign comes to a conclusion. Whatever the result, it will continue to be a balancing act between the rights of businesses to target specific audiences (and exclude others) and the community’s desire to be included.

City council should decide how they can legally govern in the matter so they are ready to act if and when the time comes.

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