Analysis

Richmond, B.C., opts for persuasion over bylaws in campaign against non-English signs

After years of protests and contentious council meetings, a motion on how Richmond, B.C., should deal with business signs that don't include English passed not with a bang, but a unanimous whimper.

Some Ontario cities use bylaws to regulate signage, but Richmond is taking a softer approach

Signs for businesses in Richmond, B.C., often contain both English and Chinese characters, particularly in the city's downtown core. (Christer Waara/CBC)

After four years of protests and contentious council meetings, the debate over how Richmond, B.C., should deal with business signs that don't include English came to a quiet conclusion.

In a virtually empty council chamber, one of Metro Vancouver's largest municipalities unanimously voted to continue the current policy, under which if a sign contains less than 50 per cent English or French, city staff are instructed to "encourage and educate" businesses, in the hopes they'll add English to their Chinese signs.  

Only now, it will be formalized in writing. 

That's in contrast to other regions in Canada which have used laws, not diplomacy, to encourage the use of Canada's official languages on signs.

"It's taking the verbal policy, the attitude of our city council in the past, and simply putting it into a written policy so it'll be preserved in the future," said Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie.  

It was 40 years ago that Quebec passed Bill 101, regulating language use in that province, and there's been no shortage of controversy on language policy in the decades since. 

A longtime mayor with moderate views, Brodie has taken pains to show he understands both sides of the argument. 

"You've lived here all your life, and you have a store that has no English on the signage, you may well feel excluded and feel you're no longer part of the community," he said. 

Most of the complaints about signage concern real estate billboards and flyers — areas out of the city's control — and most people acknowledge there's little the city could do, even if it wanted to take action.

But Richmond's way of placating some longtime residents was a solution seemingly straight out of the political satire in Yes Minister. When action was demanded, action was taken ... in the form of a bureaucratically worded motion that preserves the non-binding status quo.    

Which may have been the point, given the lack of drama at Monday's meeting. 

There have been over 300 sign complaints in Richmond in the first half of 2017, but many of them are real estate signs or flyers, which are out of the city's jurisdiction. (Christer Waara/CBC)

"The media is overemphasizing this written policy. The real message doesn't have to be in writing, but in order to better preserve it in the future, you put it in writing," said Brodie.

Toronto-area communities took a different path

In the 2016 census, 62.4 per cent of Richmond residents said their first language was something other than English or French, the highest figure for any city or town in Canada. 

But the two municipalities after Richmond on that list — Markham and Richmond Hill, both suburban cities to the north of Toronto — have taken a different approach in regulating language. 

"People would talk about the Chinese taking over, saying they opened up businesses that catered only to the Chinese," said Alex Chiu, who has served as a councillor in Markham since 1985. 

During the 1990s, when tensions were higher, Markham's city council enacted a bylaw requiring businesses to have any sign be 50 per cent English or French. 

"When we came up with the bylaw, things started to change," he said.  

Richmond councillors have said one reason they're afraid of passing a bylaw is a court challenge based on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But there hasn't been a major court challenge in either Markham or Richmond Hill since their bylaws were enacted.

Chiu said the bylaw isn't contentious today, but its overall effect is similar to what Richmond is aiming for. 

"But sometimes people don't follow it. They don't understand the bylaw, so they go out and do what they do, until somebody goes out and complains, and then we'll send out the bylaw officers. But if nobody complains, we just let it go."

Just one part of the puzzle

Of course, the bylaws were just one part of an overall strategy to de-escalate racial tensions. There was rezoning of commercial land, a race relations committee to talk out conflicts in the municipality, and enough generational change that the issue became less and less of a flashpoint.

Bylaw or no bylaw, that's the path Richmond is hoping to take. 

"The 50-50 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 Carol Day, one of the councillors who was originally in support of a bylaw, but is now hopeful the softer policy works better.  

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

A developer's sign in Richmond has no English. (Christer Waara/CBC)

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is a reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering political stories throughout British Columbia.