British Columbia

Richmond city council passes policy encouraging 50% English on commercial signs

Richmond's city council has decided the current approach to dealing with English on commercial signs will be formalized into a written policy.

Policy puts down in writing what staff has been doing, but doesn't attempt legislating the issue

The City of Richmond says an "educational approach" to encourage at least 50 per cent English on a sign has led to 100 per cent compliance. (CBC)

Richmond's city council has decided the current approach to dealing with English on commercial signs will be formalized into a written policy. 

After months of debate, councillors unanimously voted to adopt a policy that encourages signs to be at least 50 per cent English.   

It means the city will continue to have no bylaws regulating language on signs. 

The city says a bylaw is not necessary, because "the educational approach to encouraging the use of 50 percent English on signs regulated by the City of Richmond has been 100 percent effective for all business signs," according to a staff report. 

"I truly think we're on the right track as far as this policy goes," said Coun. Derek Dang, voicing his support for the motion before it passed. 

"It's probably been talked about more than we want to."

Encouragement vs. requirement

A bylaw regulating language on signs was rejected in 2013 and 2015, but in June, council voted 5-4 on drafting a new bylaw, which would have enforced a 50-per-cent English rule.

It would have also included the city hiring a full-time sign inspector.

Richmond legal council expressed concern it could violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by infringing on freedom of expression, and council eventually decided not to vote on it, opting instead for more study.

Two of the councillors who voted in favour of a bylaw supported the new encouragement motion, because it strikes the right balance. 

"Fifty-fifty is straightforward, and we can go from there, and, hopefully, it's a compromise, and I think it continues to help us have a harmonious community," said Bill McNulty, who introduced the bylaw amendment. 

"We really do try and use the education and communication tool. We've been so successful with the carrot, we don't need the stick," said Carol Day.

She said while she would have preferred a bylaw, she trusts staff to effectively work with the policy as outlined.

"If we don't get this right, we're going to really do our citizens a disservice ... we have to take this seriously, and we have to create an inclusive society, and this is one way we could do that."

Mayor hopes it settles the issue

Specifically at issue in Richmond have been signs in Chinese, which have increased in numbers over the years in the city. According to the 2016 census, 44.8 per cent of residents indicated a Chinese language as their mother tongue, compared to 33.1 per cent who listed English.   

But Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said the issue has been percolating in the city for around 25 years.

"We have a very large non-English speaking population. That can easily get translated into signage. If you see your clientele is mostly Chinese, maybe you just need a Chinese sign. I think that's a mistake from a marketing and business point of view, but I think it's a mistake from a cultural point of view as well," he said. 

Brodie said Richmond can have only so much effect on signs — mentioning that people's complaints stem from real estate postings, which aren't regulated by the city — but he's hopeful the city has come up with a lasting policy that's effective.

"I think we've dealt with the issue. I think we've had a very fulsome debate. I would hope this will enable us to go to the next step, which is we're comfortable with our diversity, but it's not a them and us, it's an us situation, and we can work through that."