RICHMOND, B.C. — Some councillors of a Vancouver-area city with a large Chinese population say they hope formalizing a policy of education and outreach will put to rest a divisive, decades-long dispute over including English on store signs.
The City of Richmond voted Monday to put in writing a policy that directs municipal officials to push behind the scenes for business signage to be at least 50 per cent English, instead of using fines to enforce explicit language requirements.
The unanimous decision formalizes a practice that has been in effect since 2014.
“It’s like tying the bow on the box, so to speak,” Coun. Derek Dang said Tuesday. “I believe we are truly at the end of it at this stage.”
The dilemma around language requirements on city-regulated signs has dogged Richmond since at least the early 1990s, Mayor Malcolm Brodie said.
Some council members have previously called for strict regulations and the hiring of a sign enforcement officer, only to back down in the face of possible charter challenges around freedom of expression.
Brodie said the fear of a costly legal battle is not the only factor deterring the city from passing a bylaw regulating the use of language on signs.
“The feeling of council was that it would not enhance community harmony to have these kinds of mandates laid down,” he said. “We wanted more of a co-operative venture.”
Census data for Richmond reveals more than 44 per cent of Richmond residents speak a Chinese language as a mother tongue, predominantly Mandarin and Cantonese, compared with 33 per cent of those who say their first language is English.
Not everyone on Richmond council sees Monday’s vote as the end solution. Coun. Carol Day described formalizing the outreach policy as a step in the right direction but she hopes to eventually expand the program to include non-licensed business signs.
“I’m not interested in pacifying the problem. I’m interested in solving the problem,” she said. “We do that by more communication, more education and more support from the city.”
Day was one of the few councillors who has supported an enforcement bylaw around the issue, but she has since spoken in favour of the educational approach.
“As long as we have compliance I’m a happy councillor,” she said. “Let’s use a carrot approach as opposed to a stick approach. I really believe that learned behaviour is better than forced behaviour.”
Rob Akimow, head of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, applauded the city’s decision.
“It’s a good model. It has proved to be working,” he said about the city’s policy of engaging early on with business owners during the application process, before a sign is even printed.
“They’re in front of the business and they’re giving them the correct and proper information before (business owners) do anything that is going to put them out of pocket.”
Earlier this year, Richmond passed a bylaw that expanded the types of signs that require municipal approval, leading to 325 applications so far this year, surpassing the annual average of 300.
The mayor said he hopes council’s decision means the city will not have to revisit the issue for at least the foreseeable future.
“Nothing is put to rest for good. You never have that kind of assurance no matter what the issue is,” Brodie said. “But I certainly hope that the community will be accepting of our approach.”
The Richmond Chinese Community Society did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Richmond signed a contract last year with an advertising agency that requires all foreign-language ads to be half in English in terms of space, font size, content and detail.
— By Geordon Omand in Vancouver; follow @gwomand on Twitter
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