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Mandatory English on signs could be on the way in Richmond

Majority of city council supports proposal for 50 per cent of business signage to contain an official Canadian language
Chinese sign
A property manager said he didn’t think to include English on an employment sign.

At least 50 per cent English on business signs in Richmond could be on the way, after a surprising turn of events at city hall Monday afternoon.

City council and staff were debating the merits of a proposed, new sign regulation bylaw — which focused mainly on de-cluttering storefronts of ads and streamlining the sign application process — when Coun. Bill McNulty insisted that future signage should have at least 50 per cent of one of Canada’s official languages.

Motivating McNulty to move the amendment was the weight of nearly 200 comments received during public consultation at the end of last year, with the majority of the feedback pointing to an apparent dearth of English on business signs across the city.

Before his amendment went around the table, however, Mayor Malcolm Brodie reminded council that city lawyers have already warned them that any move to demand English or French on business signs may fall foul of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (charter) and be challenged in the courts.

The warning failed to deter McNulty, who moved on with his amendment, which was successfully passed, with councillors Carol Day, Alexa Loo, Ken Johnston and Harold Steves voting in favour. The mayor, along with councillors Derek Dang, Chak Au and Linda McPhail, all voted against the move.

The amended bylaw proposal will now go to a full council meeting next Monday, ahead of a public hearing, possibly later this month.

Before the amendment was passed, McNulty, referring to public feedback, said the message was clear that it was time to start regulating the language on business signs in Richmond.

“I’m looking at all these comments saying we should include English; maybe it’s time to just put (English) in. I keep seeing these kind of comments,” said McNulty.

“People are saying they want to see (English); if it gets challenged (in court), it gets challenged.”

Referring to city staff’s assertion that education, rather than regulation, has been working over the last two years — in terms of encouraging businesses to use English on their signs — Steves said it shouldn’t then be a problem if it becomes part of the new bylaw.

And he also took issue with the mayor’s concern that “community harmony” could be compromised if the city chooses to demand English or French on future business signs.

“We have the business community agreeable to it, so what’s stopping us?” said Steves.

“When I grew up as a kid, the population of the town was half Japanese and when I walked into a shop or something, they would change their language to English as a courtesy.

“I had a lady come to the farm the other day (wanting to buy something) and the only English word she knew was ‘poo.’

“If half the population (nowadays) doesn’t speak English, then you don’t have community harmony.”

After hearing from one of the city’s lawyers at Monday’s general purposes meeting, Brodie further reminded council that the “civil liberties people have told us that it will be challenged.

“We should work with people, rather than put down strict bylaws. The fact is that these are signs on public property and we have a legal opinion that there are difficulties (with demanding a language).”

Brodie added that the debate boils down to the provision for “freedom of expression” in the charter. “That’s what it’s about.”

The City of Richmond, until now, has backed away from including language requirements in the bylaw, preferring to educate and encourage businesses to conform.

Community activist Kerry Starchuk — who has campaigned for, among other things, more English to be incorporated into all kinds of communication in the city — said she was very surprised by Monday’s development.

She did, however, stop short of any kind of celebration, citing the fact that the city’s signs are only a small part of a much bigger problem.

“They’re on the right track, I guess, but in terms of getting this resolved, as a community, there’s a long, long way to go,” said Starchuk on Tuesday morning.

“There will still be literature coming to my door in foreign languages and vans driving through the neighbourhood with no English on it. We’re talking about the whole thing here, (the city) is only changing the business signs.”

Starchuk acknowledged that it was a “slight move forward,” but bemoaned the fact that three councillors and the mayor are still against promoting English on business signs in Richmond.

“I’m not going to be happy until it’s 100 per cent resolved,” she added, suggesting that B.C. should bring in a language law similar to Quebec.

The City of Richmond is tabling recommendations for a new business sign bylaw to lessen the impact of cluttered advertisements on windows and sidewalks.

The “clutter bylaw,” as it has been referred to by many, is the product of city council’s direction to lessen the impact of foreign language signs and unregulated ads, without expressly implementing language provisions, until this week.

According to a city staff report, one of the rising complaint categories is real estate signs, which, under the new bylaw, would be restricted to four per development.

If the new bylaw proceeds as it exists now, a new, full-time sign inspector will be hired by the city at a cost of $85,000 per year.

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