RICHMOND — Situated at the mouth of the mighty Fraser River, the longest and most important waterway in British Columbia, Richmond is home to the bustling Vancouver International Airport, bucolic blueberry fields and the highest ratio of Chinese-Canadians in the entire country.
It is also a living example of how rapidly shifting demographics are changing the Eurocentric face of Canada.
And that shift is presenting planners and politicians with an important challenge: How can Richmond’s 200,000 residents be inclusive while also fostering diversity, bringing people together while also honouring their differences?
Richmond’s cultural mosaic was most recently tested a month ago when a group of longtime white residents armed with a 1,052-person petition asked city council to enact a bylaw forcing Chinese-Canadian businesses to have English, or French on their signs along with Chinese.
An accompanying presentation noted the objective of the petition was to "address the undercurrent of concerns circling our community" dealing with signage that lacked either of Canada’s two official languages.
"Lately, there has been a noticeable increase of ethnic advertising on leaflets, on buses and bus shelters, in real estate pamphlets etc.," the presentation said. "We, the 'new visible minorities' are experiencing exclusion, an exclusion that is relevant to ALL ethnic backgrounds unable to read Asian characters."
In the end, city council -- no doubt aware of Statistics Canada reports showing that almost 60 per cent of Richmond's residents reported a non-official language (neither English nor French) as their mother tongue -- voted to take no action on the petition, thereby allowing the market to decide which customers go to what shops.
Good thing, too, considering that the same StatsCan information showed that Cantonese, Chinese and Mandarin were the top three non-official languages in Richmond.
Still, a quick drive around Richmond, just south of Vancouver, does sometimes show a bewildering display of Chinese signage, even if English is also included. But, as has been noted, the perceived problem is often augmented by a disproportionate sense of scale -- large Chinese characters and small English signage.
Richmond is not alone among Metro Vancouver cities dealing with massive demographic change as the region's population of 2.3 million is expected to grow by more than one million additional people in the next three decades.
Mandarin, Chinese and Cantonese were the top three non-official languages in both Burnaby, where 54 per cent reported a non-official language as their mother tongue, and Vancouver, where 45 per cent reported a non-official language as their mother tongue.
Meanwhile in Surrey, 44 per cent reported a non-official mother tongue, with Punjabi, Tagalog and Hindi the top three. In Coquitlam, where 41 per cent reported non-official mother tongues, the top three were Korean, Farsi and Mandarin.
Daniel Hiebert, a University of British Columbia geography professor studying demographic change, has determined Metro Vancouver and Metro Toronto will not only be bigger, but much different cities, within 20 years.
Using Statistics Canada data, Hiebert wrote a 32-page report for Citizenship and Immigration Canada last year that said "(Metro) Toronto and (Metro) Vancouver are projected to become 'majority-minority' cities, with an overall visible minority population at 63 and 59 per cent respectively" before 2031.
"In Toronto and Vancouver, the degree of separation between whites and visible minorities is projected to rise considerably, beginning to approach that in the average U.S. city in 2010 between whites and African-Americans."
Hiebert also predicted the two metropolitan areas would experience "a greater tendency for whites and visible minorities to gravitate to different parts of each metropolitan region, and with a high ratio of visible minorities living in enclaves dominated by a particular group."
Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said that diversity, especially involving European and Asian settlers, has been an important ingredient of the city's makeup since it was incorporated in 1879.
"The city has always been an interesting mix of different cultures," Brodie said, adding a large number of Chinese settled in Richmond in the 1980s, followed by people from Taiwan and currently from mainland China.
He said city council and other community organizations continually work at bridging the cultural gap between ethnic communities, stressing the importance of cultural harmony.
"Change is going to affect people in different ways and, sure, there are some people who haven't enjoyed and embraced the change as others have. My attitude is we welcome people from all over the world."
Barry Grabowski, chairman of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, said the city has experienced major changes in the past three decades but on the whole has adapted well to a new non-European society that includes all sorts of cultures and languages.
Grabowski says he understands some people are uncomfortable with the pace of change but adds Richmond already represents what many Canadian cities might look like in the future.
"We don't see it as a problem," he said.
Kerry Starchuk, a fourth-generation Richmond resident whose great-grandfather once was mayor, helped bring the petition to city council and describes the scale of change she has witnessed as being overwhelming.
"Right now I'm not feeling very Canadian," the 55-year-old Starchuk said. "There's just too many things that just don't feel normal."
Yes, change is sometimes hard as comfortable reference points give way to new ones. But like the Internet, the global movement of people, languages and customs is here to stay -- in Richmond first perhaps, but eventually across Canada.
Chris Rose is the Winnipeg Free Press West Coast correspondent.