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Richmond, B.C., spokesman Ted Townsend says the city ‘prefers’ that at least half of content on all signs be in English.

Rafal Gerszak

The City of Richmond has a full-time job for anyone who can encourage businesses to include English on Chinese-only signs.

The job, advertised online last week, is the latest development in the unsuccessful push by resident and activist Kerry Starchuk for a 2013 bylaw amendment that would mandate businesses to include English on signs across the city, where roughly half of residents identify as Chinese.

Last March, the city unanimously voted against the proposal after hearing legal views that it could conflict with Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, city spokesman Ted Townsend said. Instead, he said, the city "prefers" that at least half of the content on all signs be in English.

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"The other reason is we don't necessarily believe the problem is big enough to require specific language, turning our staff into sign police that now have to go out with rulers and determine whether a sign is a complaint or not," he said.

"It would create a whole level of bureaucracy that is much greater than the problem warrants."

Part of the job's duties, according to the posting, includes encouraging business owners to include English on their signs, advertisements and other forms of commercial communication in order to promote "community harmony." The successful applicant will be expected to translate Chinese-only signs into English. The position will pay anywhere from $32 to $38 an hour, subject to review.

"There are some people that find it disturbing when they see signs that are Chinese-only on a business," Mr. Townsend said. "There is a feeling this is Canada and one of our official languages should be present."

Other aspects of the job include enforcing amendments made to sign bylaws in March that prohibit unapproved signs and restrict the areas in which signs can be displayed. The posting says applicants are required to handle "disagreeable situations, which include verbal abuse, threats, rudeness and the risk of potential violence," which is standard for bylaw enforcers, Mr. Townsend said.

"It happens infrequently, but it is part of the job."

The city experimented with similar trial positions following the bylaw amendments, which included taking inventory on the number of Chinese-only signs, in addition to encouraging business owners to include English. The results were positive, Mr. Townsend added, which led to the creation of an extended role.

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"It will be reviewed within a year or so to see how effective it is and whether we'll continue doing so moving forward," he said.

But for Ms. Starchuk, it's not enough.

"This isn't a temporary issue," she said, adding she doesn't think the role will be effective. "It's everywhere.

"The way I know the city to operate is that they work on a reactive and complaint basis, and they don't go out and do anything pro-active."

Complaints about a lack of English signage date back to 1997, Ms. Starchuk said. City documents from the period provided by Ms. Starchuk outline a complaint forwarded to the supervisor of zoning and signs.

The matter was referred to the Richmond Chamber of Commerce to hold discussions with the Asian Business Association, which "could be beneficial," the documents say.

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"I haven't seen the city do anything," Ms. Starchuk said.

But Richmond Chamber of Commerce chair Rob Akimow said the issue isn't so cut and dried.

"We have experienced more often than not definitely a willingness … but almost shyness or embarrassment about their language skills and they don't feel comfortable," he said, referring to consultations with local business owners.

"Of course, there's the other side, where you see people [who] just don't seem to want to welcome people."

The new role will have a positive effect on the city, Mr. Akimow added.

"[They're] trying to do something and educate these owners and find out if it is really, truly, a language barrier issue, and making sure everyone is having a conversation and trying to get things working in a smoother manner," he said.

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