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The Legacy of Malcolm Brodie, Mayor of Canada’s First Asian City


South Vancouver, B.C. -Canada (Photo courtesy of Brad Salsberg)

South Vancouver, B.C. -Canada (Photo courtesy of Brad Salzberg)

The Legacy of Malcolm Brodie, Mayor of Canada’s First Asian City

By Brad Salzberg, April 2015

Sir John A. McDonald. Sir Wilfred Laurier. Two of the founders of our country, often referred to as “forefathers” of our nation. In modern Canada, however, we have forefathers of a different variety.

Take Richmond B. C. Mayor Malcolm Brodie. He is a forefather of a new variety. Richmond is known as the most Asian city outside of Asia. It is a Canadian municipality in which white Canadians are a minority, and it shows. Within Richmond’s business districts, Chinese languages dominate the billboards, store fronts and public advertising. Many do not include an English equivalent. When English is included, it often appears perfunctory, with Chinese characters dominating the messaging.

It’s an unusual phenomenon, and rather controversial. Community leaders, responding to community ​dissatisfaction, recently organized a public meeting to better understand public sentiment, and to hear from both proponents and detractors.

Mayor Brodie was in attendance, but refrained from making a formal statement. At issue is the method to resolve the conflict. Some local residents promote public education as a remedy, an expensive and time-consuming endeavour. Others call for passing a by-law, which another Richmond- ​Richmond Hill, Ontario- implemented several years back. Mayor Brodie, however, feels the by-law may be a violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, though it is difficult to find the logic in his thinking, considering the existing Richmond Hill bylaw.

Mr. Brodie has been mayor of Richmond for a long time- decades in fact- and therefore if responsibility for the signage issue is to fall on any one person’s shoulders, it would be him. Assessing the situation today, it is difficult to understand how Mayor Brodie and ​c​ity ​c​ouncil could have permitted the extent of foreign language signage in the first place. After all, this is not an issue of subtlety- there are thousands of these signs, with many containing giant size and brightly coloured Chinese characters. Driving down Number 3 road and vicinity, it is difficult to believe you are in a  Canadian city. The fact that Richmond’s major shopping malls and grocery stores also feature this signage, the experience of visiting Richmond borders on the surreal.

Why didn’t Mayor Brodie act ​on the issue before it reached a point of creating social discord ?

Is he so near-sighted he could not anticipate that non-Chinese residents would one day object to having their city transformed into Asia’s first North American city? One can assume he did not, or perhaps, he is in favour of the idea.

One wonders the kind of impact this will on this man’s political legacy. Will time prove Malcolm Brodie to be a forefather of sorts- namely, the forefather of Canada’s post-modern ethnic mini-states?

A rather disconcerting thought, but one which may not be as far-fetched as some may believe. At present, there are twenty-six constituencies out of a total of 308 which are minority Caucasian. With immigration rates at an all-time high, and no signs of a downward adjustment, this number is on an upward trajectory. The fact is, there is not a single word regarding the use of foreign languages within federal or provincial legislation. This means there is nothing to prevent other Canadian municipalities from arriving at the community conflict being experienced presently in Richmond.

It is ironic that a country with history of conflict over language- specifically our official languages of English and French- Canadians choose to stand idly by while neighbourhoods, business districts and indeed entire municipalities experience the erosion of their Canadian identity. BMO, former bank of Montreal, offers bilingual English and Chinese banking at the majority of their insta-tellers, even in communities with no Chinese-speaking Canadians. More irony, considering BMO was founded in Quebec, the most linguistically-sensitive province in the country.

It doesn’t take a degree in sociology to understand that language is fundamental to cultural identity. Change a nation’s language, and you alter its destiny. Obviously, this concept is outside of Mayor Brodie’s purview. More than​ likely, Brodie was simply interested in keeping his job by pleasing the business community in Richmond, in particular real estate developers and agents. A representative from the Office of the Ministry of Official Languages commented that “most likely” the reason is that City Council did not want to upset foreign investors.

So onward goes the battle. It should be mentioned, however, there has been a significant change in artillery. Beyond the store fronts and restaurants, the issue of corporate marketing has come into play. As ethnic populations increase, so too does the corporate world’s desire for their money. Loblaws, Telus, Proctor & Gamble, Shaw Media and others are now advertising in Chinese, and in most cases these ads are unilingual- no English, no French.

For folks like Mayor Brodie, this may be as meaningless as a neon sign on a noodle house, but for those with the skills to project into the future, it is a concern. Could this impact a city like Vancouver to the degree that its distinctly Canadian identity is eventually lost. Could Vancouver one day find itself virtually indistinguishable from cities in Asia?

Vancouver is predicted to be on the receiving end of one million new residents over the next three decades. The majority of these new arrivals will come from Asia. Even at present, step off a plane at the Vancouver airport and you are greeted not by a Canadian flag or attractive pictures of Whistler mountain, but rather by Chinese language advertisements from real estate giant Concord Pacific. Every picture tells a story, and these pictures are telling us the days may be numbered for our unique Canadian identity.

Canada’s language laws are as old as the country itself. One of the first motions upon confederacy in 1867 was the enactment of English and French language laws. In 1969, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau established Canada’s Official Languages Act. He did so for a reason- to promote unity among English and French Canada, and to preserve Canadian identity. In fact,the pre-amble to the Multicultural Act of 1988 states that multiculturalism is meant to function within a bi-lingual framework.  Should this be thrown in the dust bin of history because global corporations want to increase their market share, or by the fact that merchants in Richmond lack an understanding of the meaning of being Canadian?

Based on Malcolm Brodie’s actions, this is all fine and dandy, and he is not alone. Vancouver proper is becoming inundated with foreign language signage and advertising, as is the City of Burnaby, and several others local municipalities. Thus far, neither Brodie, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson or the city council in any district oppose these developments. Should we be surprised? Of course not. This is Vancouver, and in Vancouver, money rules. Perhaps more succinctly, real estate money​ rules. The fact is, our local real estate industry couldn’t give a fig about mundane issues like culture, identity or language. The only language they care about is the language of the dollar bill, or perhaps the renminbi, now that Canada is home to the first chinese currency renminbi hub outside of China.

Will Vancouver residents simply go about their business while a profound cultural transformation occurs all around them? In our politically correct society, most likely this is exactly what they will do. After all, to oppose such a thing is risky. A person could get labelled as a nasty bigot, or racist. This could affect their reputation, or their job. One could quickly find themselves a social outcast. Such is the power of political correctness in present-day Canada.

As a result, Vancouver residents grin and bear it. Just below the surface, however, resentment is growing, and becoming palpable. A Facebook page entitled “Vanishing Vancouver” has over four thousand supporters. As local residents continue to experience the endless tear downs, construction noise and debris, as well as houses listed for sale which sit empty for months or years on end, a growing frustration brews.

Despite concrete evidence that Richmond community members want city hall to take action on the foreign signage- a one thousand signature petition was delivered to Richmond City Hall in 2011- Mayor Brodie, Gregor Robertson and their type will not be moved. Home tear downs result in an increase in property tax revenues, and this is priority number one.

However, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, even among the well meaning folk of Western Canada’s largest city. What will become the legacy of these local leaders? Will Mayor Robertson be known for anything other than the boyfriend of a tedious Asian pop singer? For Malcolm Brodie, it appears his fate is sealed as the forefather of Canada’s first Asian city. For many local residents, this is not a legacy at all, but the contribution of a short-sighted community leader lacking in vision and a true understanding of what it means to be a Canadian.

B. Salzberg, April 2015

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