Richmond city council debated Monday the merits of a bylaw that would require all new commercial signs to include an official Canadian language — comprising 50 percent of the sign —  but did not take the decision to a vote.

In a crowded council room, Richmond residents on both sides of the debate expressed their concerns in strongly worded, sometimes emotional statements.

Some said they felt frustrated and annoyed by the number of Chinese signs along Richmond's No. 3 road, while others said the proposed bylaw made them feel unwelcome and even unsafe in their own community.

In a written statement presented to council, former Vancouver councillor Tung Chan said he was "upset" by Chinese-only signs, but urged council not to adopt the bylaw.

"People who do that show their ignorance about what is the make up of Richmond and a lack of respect to our country's language and heritage," he said. 

"But to change the behaviour of ignorant people is by education, not by enacting bylaws."

A familiar issue

The issue was re-ignited last week after Counc. Bill McNulty added a surprise amendment to a proposed sign bylaw on storefronts.

If passed, the proposed bylaw would apply to any new commercial sign introduced in the city of Richmond, but not to other items like pamphlets or newspaper ads.

A bylaw regulating language on commercial signs was previously considered in 2013 and 2015.

Richmond mayor Malcolm Brodie voted against McNulty's proposed amendment last week. He said that when the issue was previously discussed, city staff found only 13 out of over 1,500 commercial signs in Richmond failed to include an English or French translation.

​He said that after an education campaign, all business owners applying for new signs decided to include English translations.

"Since we went out and took the consultative approach, with over 900 applications, 100 per cent of them now have some English signage. So you have to ask — what are we trying to accomplish here?" he said. 

Richmond legal council also expressed concern that the bylaw could violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by infringing on freedom of expression. 

Richmond city staff requested more time to consider the bylaw, and sought clarification on a number of issues, including the definition of '50 per cent of a sign.'

They also raised the issue of whether foreign language brands would need to be translated — for example, whether a non-English word like "Ikea" should also require an English or French translation.

The proposed bylaw is now expected to go to a second round of public consultations in July.