By Balwant Sanghera
VANCOUVER: Canada is not only a multicultural but also a multilingual country. It is home to more than 200 communities representing ever corner of the world.
The South Asians and Chinese are the two largest ethnic communities that call Canada their home. Surrey, with 94,000 speakers of Punjabi, has now become the largest Punjabi settlement of Punjabis outside Punjab.
Similarly, Richmond, with almost 60 percent of its population of Chinese heritage, may be one of the largest settlements of Mandarin and Cantonese speakers outside of China.
Have a swing through Surrey, and you will find that most Indo-Canadian businesses have signs both in English and Punjabi.
However, it is a different story in Richmond. There are Chinese-only signage at some Chinese malls and stores. This made some non-Chinese residents of Richmond to bring the issue before the city council recently to force these shops and malls to display English signage alongside the Chinese.
This issue had come to the Richmond City Council a few years ago also. The Council at that time was urged to pass a bylaw whereby all of the Chinese stores would be forced to have signs both in English and Chinese. However, the Council didn’t want to go that route. Instead, it urged the Chinese stores to have signs in English as well in addition to Chinese. It had some impact. A number of stores agreed to have signage both in Chinese and English. Also, a major Chinese Shopping Mall- Aberdeen Centre- encouraged its tenants to place the signs in English as well on their storefronts. It has made a big difference. A lot of non-Chinese speaking customers have been visiting the Mall since then.
Two Richmond residents –Kerry Starchuk and Ann Merdinyan- realized that there are still a number of Chinese stores that have only Chinese signs on their storefronts. In order to change this, they started a petition and managed to get 1,000 signatures. About two weeks ago, they took the petition to the Richmond City Council and asked ir to pass a bylaw that will force all businesses with Chinese-only signage to also have the signage in English. Again, the City Council refused to pass any such bylaw.
I would like to commend both Kerry Starchuk and Ann Merdinyan for bringing up this issue to the forefront. It is a productive and healthy way to bring issues such as these out in the open rather than let them simmer under the surface.
The suggestion to encourage the Chinese businesses to have signage both in Chinese and English makes sense. However, to create a bylaw to force Chinese businesses to do so appears to be the wrong way. The Richmond City Council has done the right thing by staying away from creating a bylaw to force such businesses to have signs both in English and Chinese.
In my opinion, any such bylaw will do more harm than good to the community. Those businesses that have signs only in Chinese need to be convinced rather than forced that having signs in both languages is simply good business practice. With signs in both languages, they are bound to increase their exposure and subsequent customer base. The Aberdeen Centre Mall on Cambie and #3 Road is an excellent example of this. With its storefront signs both in Chinese and English, it attracts a lot of customers from other communities as well.
In order to effectively deal with issues like these, Richmond’s Chinese community, businesses and the Chinese media need to take on a leadership role. By sidestepping this issue, the City, in a sense, has passed on the ball back to the community. Hopefully, they will put their heads together in resolving this matter to the satisfaction of all.
There is a good precedent in this regard. A few years ago, young men, mostly of Chinese heritage, were getting into trouble due to street car racing. The community was at its wit’s end. Finally, leadership of the Chinese community, along with the Richmond RCMP and the City of Richmond, put their heads together and took appropriate measures to end this menace. The same can be done to deal with this matter now. This will be a far better solution than passing another bylaw.
Richmond is a very diverse, multicultural and multilingual community proud of its intercultural harmony. A minor issue like this should not be allowed to adversely affect that in any way.
(Order-of-British Columbia, Balwant Sanghera is an Indo-Canadian community activist in Richmond City on the outskirts of Vancouver)