Chinese-language signs have been a fiery issue in Richmond.
Residents have launched petitions insisting all signs contain at least some of Canada’s official languages, English or French, even if almost half the city’s population is ethnic Chinese.
Prominent Chinese leaders have also called on Richmond businesses to include English in all signs, as well for immigrants to show respect for their adopted country by following its customs.
Richmond City Council, however, maintains it cannot mandate English in Chinese-language signs because it would face a court challenge, particularly from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
In May, Richmond council attempted to sidestep a BCCLA challenge by approving a motion to begin restricting signage “clutter.” Councillors say this would deal with the controversy because most of the city’s Chinese-only signs are temporary, posted in windows or electronic.
Executive director Josh Paterson explained to the Sun why the BCCLA champions the use of any language on signs in Canada:
Q: Why did the BCCLA come out firmly in favour of posting commercial signs in Richmond in any language, including Chinese?
A: It’s simple. People have the right to use any language of their choice in expressing themselves, whether personally, or to conduct business. That is part of our constitutionally-protected freedom of expression. The Supreme Court of Canada stated: “There cannot be true freedom of expression by means of language if one is prohibited from using the language of one’s choice”. Language isn’t just a way of communicating — it is woven together with the content of what we are saying.
“It is entirely about the right of individuals, and individuals gathered together in businesses and other organizations, to express themselves in the language of their choice,” says the BCCLA’s Josh Paterson.
Q: What do you say to those who argue the BCCLA is putting commercial values — the right of a business to make a profit — above communitarian values and cultural cohesion?
A: For us, this has nothing to do with … the right of a business to make a profit. It is entirely about the right of individuals, and individuals gathered together in businesses and other organizations, to express themselves in the language of their choice. Whose communitarian values and whose cultural cohesion are we talking about here? Communities across B.C. who choose to express themselves in the languages that feel natural to them have every right to do so, as part of their values and their culture.
Q: Do you have any concerns a proliferation of Chinese-dominant signs in Richmond could make those who do not read Chinese (including ethnic Chinese residents) feel alienated or unwelcome in their community?
A: Everyone wants to feel welcome in their own communities. B.C. is a plural society with many different cultures and languages, including many languages indigenous to this land. That’s something to be treasured, and it is reflected in how we communicate with each other in our families, our communities, and visually on our streetscapes.
Q: What do you think of Richmond’s current indirect approach to reducing Chinese-language dominant signs, which is to reduce visual “clutter?”
A: If a city is using other means, like a concern about clutter, in an attempt to impose restrictions on people’s language of expression, that, too, could be a violation of people’s constitutional rights. Regulating commercial street signage standards is part of a city’s job, but a government can’t make an end run around a constitutional right.
Q: Would the BCCLA overturn Quebec’s sign rules, which are meant to protect francophone culture from being slowly dominated by anglophone culture?
A: Quebec’s original sign law, Bill 101, required that commercial signage be posted only in French … In the same case in which the Supreme Court of Canada talked about the importance of language, the court ruled that this requirement was an unjustified violation of the freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Even though the court found that there was considerable evidence that the French language was vulnerable, and that there was a pressing societal need to protect the French language, the court still said the violation was not justified. Quebec changed its laws after that court ruling to allow bilingual outdoor signs. The new laws still impose on the freedom of expression, but have not been challenged in the courts.
Q: Do you have any concerns that some of Canada’s major cities are developing into self-segregating ethnic enclaves, divided in part by language differences?
A: Our concern is for people’s constitutional rights and freedoms. That includes the freedom to communicate with each other in the language of one’s choice. Promoting cross-cultural communication and interaction is wonderful, but it can’t be done in a way that violates people’s rights.
Q: Is the BCCLA planning on challenging the sign laws in Richmond Hill, Ontario, which also has a sizable ethnic Chinese population? Its bylaws mandate some English in all signs.
A: We don’t have any plans at the moment because our work on this is currently focused in B.C.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.