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Moncton is hoping to see the number of commercial signs increase to 30 per cent in the next five years. (CBC)

Moncton council is using an education campaign in its efforts to boost the number of bilingual signs at downtown businesses to 30 per cent in the next five years.

Moncton became the province’s first officially bilingual city in 2002 but the number of bilingual signs in the downtown is at 22 per cent.

Councillors have decided they want that number to be higher, but they plan to use education instead of a bylaw.

The city will offer free bilingual signs to businesses that will allow them to announce their hours of business as well as indicate whether they are open or closed.

Coun. Brian Hicks said the city should leave businesses alone in deciding what language to post their signs in.

"I just think that this has to be left to business," he said.

Moncton’s strategy for bilingual signs stands in contrast to the neighbouring city of Dieppe.

Dieppe passed its bilingual sign bylaw in May 2010. The bylaw states that French will have to be either at the top of the sign, above the English text, or on the left of the sign with the English text on the right.

Dieppe gave businesses months to comply with the new rules and the city started fining companies in September 2011 for violating the bylaw.

In 2010, Moncton began canvassing its business owners to gauge their views on moving forward with a bilingual sign bylaw.

That survey found 66 per cent of businesses said they would be willing to use bilingual signage and 26 per cent said they would not.

And 61 per cent said commercial signage language should be a business decision, while 16 per cent said it should be enforced in a bylaw.

The survey also found 83 per cent of businesses say they offer bilingual services and 61 per cent of businesses reported that their signs were in English only.

Greater Moncton's population is 124,055 and according to the city's website 62 per cent of its citizens identify themselves as anglophones and 32 per cent are francophones.

'It's strictly voluntary'

With that survey information, Moncton politicians are hoping to increase the number of bilingual signs.

Coun. Merrill Henderson said the city will work with businesses that would like to switch to bilingual signs.

"It's not by any means dictating any terms. It's strictly voluntary if you want to accept it fine if you don't fine," Henderson said.

One business owner is embracing the city’s latest push for signs in the city's two official languages.

Larry Nelson, the president of Lounsbury, an automobile and furniture company, is serving on a city committee that is looking at ways to get more businesses to put up bilingual signs.

"It's probably one of my pet passions being an anglophone living in Moncton and seeing the history, I guess, over the last 40 years," he said.

Nelson said he's sold a lot more cars and sofas by offering bilingual services in Moncton.

"When I think back 40 years ago I recognized we had a problem and I bought into this and … it is good for business.

While Moncton is an officially bilingual city, it has had a controversial history when it comes to language relations.

The most high-profile incident came in the late 1960s between former mayor Leonard Jones and university students. One fight led two students to leave a severed pig's head at the mayor's house.

But since that time, the city has worked hard to promote both official languages.

Coun. Daniel Bourgeois said the slow and steady efforts the city has used are paying off.

"The highlight of the last four years was attending Crandall University in May and we stood up to sing the national anthem and we sang it in both official languages, It was then that I realized just how much progress we had made as a community," he said.

"And it's not to target Crandall but it is an English-language institution yet they were singing the national anthem in French and then in English."