A group of condo owners in the Vancouver area have filed a human-rights complaint against their all-Chinese strata council after its members refused to conduct meetings in English.
Andreas Kargut, who lives in a 54-unit townhouse complex in Richmond, a city where roughly half of residents identify as Chinese, filed the complaint on behalf of himself and three other owners at Wellington Court. A new strata council – made up entirely of Mandarin speakers – was elected in July. Mr. Kargut said he and a neighbour asked to observe a strata council meeting earlier this month amid concerns the council had been excluding English-speaking residents from the decision-making process.
In an e-mail response to the owners, council president Ed Mao welcomed them to the meeting but noted the council had "no intention of using English," and that, for efficiency, "the council team for this fiscal [year] is using Mandarin as the preferred language for communication."
"I felt unwelcome and my dignity was damaged," Mr. Kargut says in his complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. "We are denied our owner's right to understand all proceedings and discussions at this meeting."
The provincial government, which regulates strata, says it's the first time it's come across such a complaint, though British Columbia's condo owners association says it's aware of several other similar disputes. While the B.C. Strata Property Act doesn't include any specific clauses related to the language of council meetings, it does say all records must be accessible to owners, and councils must accommodate requests by owners.
The human-rights complaint is the culmination of increasing tensions between English- and Mandarin-speaking residents in the complex.
In July, an all-Chinese council was elected after the former vice-president retained 34 proxy votes at the annual general meeting, said Mr. Kargut – a tactic that he and his neighbours claim was designed to oust English-speaking owners from council.
The annual general meeting at which the new council was elected was conducted in both English and Mandarin. At the time, English-speaking owners asked for an interpreter so they could understand the Mandarin speakers; when council hired one, they complained that the interpreter wasn't fully qualified.
Owners have received translated copies of minutes from at least one meeting since the strata election, but the owners behind the complaint question whether they are accurate and comprehensive.
Meetings have been sparsely held since the vote, Mr. Kargut said.
"We have absolutely no voice in what happens to our complex now – none," Mr. Kargut, who has lived in the complex since 2004 and sat on council from 2005 until last year, said in an interview.
Mr. Mao, the council president, declined to comment.
"As far as representing myself, I'm not interested," he wrote in an e-mail.
The owners in the group now want a council re-election without proxies; all future meetings to be held in English; proxies to be limited to one per person; a written apology; and financial compensation, according to the complaint. The complaint contains unproven allegations that have not yet been heard by the tribunal.
The building's property management company, AA Property Management, said it hasn't received an official complaint from the owners.
"All meetings are held in line with the Strata Property Act," said property management agent Sunny Cheng, who otherwise declined to comment.
Greg Steves, acting assistant to the deputy minister for the Ministry Responsible for Housing, said the province will look into the issue.
"We examine issues related to strata legislation on an ongoing basis, and will review this situation to see if there are ways to improve how strata owners access information and participate in the business activities of their strata corporation," he said.
Tony Gioventu, executive director of the Condominium Home Owners Association of B.C., said his organization has seen three similar complaints over the past five years.
"I'd suspect that their human-rights complaint will have some validity to it," he said.
But he added that strata councils have an obligation to accommodate and represent the majority within a building, and that includes those who don't speak English. Past complaints have been dealt with by providing a certified interpreter who understands the nuances of each language, he said.
"I go to a lot of meetings, and language being interpreted incorrectly is actually a bigger problem," he said.
"When you translate legislation or law from one language to another, the essence of the legislation or the law is often lost and it fuels a lot of the confusion."
Margot Young, a constitutional and social justice law professor at the University of British Columbia, said strata corporations are still bound by B.C.'s Human Rights Code, and not being able to access information related to council governance is a "real concern."
"It's clearly going to be caught by some of the prohibitive grounds of discrimination of race or ethnicity – certainly race, because I see language very clearly being a proxy for that," she said,
"If you can come and observe, presumably it wouldn't be okay that everyone was passing notes and communicating that way. And speaking Chinese is effectively passing notes that others can't read if you don't speak Chinese."
She noted that more details are needed before reaching conclusions.