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No two political parties have the same combination of languages on their election signs in the Burnaby South federal election riding. (Mashal Butt)

Multilingual campaign signs proliferate, but no one is sure they do much

Neither parties nor voters agree on the effectiveness of multiple languages on election material.

By Akshay Kulkarni, Mashal Butt and Stéphane Lavoie , in Elections , on October 16, 2019

The lawn signs in Burnaby South display a multitude of languages besides English — but there’s no logic to which language is used, which party uses which signs, or why some languages don’t appear at all.

Liberal candidate Neelam Brar’s name appears in English and Chinese. Her Conservative rival’s name, Jay Shin, appears in English, Chinese, and Korean characters. No major parties’ signs contain Tagalog, even though there are more Tagalog than Korean speakers in the riding.

And, like the signs, voters have mixed views on whether they think the variety of languages is useful in an election.

Some say it is.

“It would be helpful for a lot of immigrants who are voting for the first time,” said Kenny Ngai, an electronics salesman at Crystal Mall on Kingsway and Willingdon. He believes elections signs with his own language are better at drawing his attention.

Other voters say seeing their language on election signs has no effect on their voting behaviour or political involvement.

A portrait picture of Fen Liu, a shopper at Burnaby Crystal Mall.
Fen Liu, shopping at Crystal Mall, expressed mixed feelings about campaign-sign language. (Mashal Butt)

Fen Liu, a shopper at Crystal Mall, said languages other than English are “not that effective” for getting ideas across to ethnic voters because they miss cultural nuances.

For their part, parties offer little justification for why they use a range of languages. Representatives from the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP, and Greens all say it’s up to the candidate to determine the languages on their signs.

So many languages, so little justification

Pavan Sandhu, a local campaign strategist, said having languages besides English on campaign signs is more about looking inclusive than about access.

“Candidates don’t think it’s effective,” said Sandhu. He believes that those running for office put multiple languages on their signs to avoid being called out on it, rather than as a strategic technique to bank votes.

“It adds to the inclusivity factor that a party is going for but it’s not useful in terms of access for the voters,” Sandhu said. “It adds to what the party already stands for but it doesn’t go as far as contributing to the decision-making process.”

An infographic depicting Burnaby South's campaign signs and languages spoken.

 

To be eligible to vote in Canada, individuals must be Canadian citizens — and to become a Canadian citizen, an applicant must show basic speaking and listening skills in either English or French. So language shouldn’t technically be a barrier to casting a ballot.

Despite this, there is little consensus over what languages should appear on campaign signs, and the justifications for including multiple languages vary among campaigns.

In Burnaby South, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who is running for re-election in the riding, only has English on his campaign sign. According to Singh’s office manager, Noreen Bourdeau, having an English-only sign is not a strategic decision.

“It’s because he’s the leader of the party and we’re using all our old signs. We just put on a re-elect sticker,” she said. Personally speaking, however, she admitted it would be appealing to more voters if Singh had more languages on his signs.

And in the South Surrey-White Rock riding, NDP candidate Stephen Crozier has been handing out flyers instead — but only in English. His riding has 4,400 Punjabi speakers.

“If you can, accommodate different linguistic groups,” Crozier says. “If you don’t have the means by which to do that, you sort of hope that they’ll forgive you.”

Some agree that, while there are no obvious benefits, languages on election signs do no harm.

“I’m not sure to what extent it has a positive effect,” explains University of B.C. researcher Sara Pavan, whose work examines what makes Canada successful at integrating immigrants civically and politically. According to her, Canada doesn’t have the same issue with proficiency as other countries.

But having a language on election signs other than English or French “certainly doesn’t hurt,”  said Pavan, “because it kind of speaks to people’s backgrounds.”

An opportunity for inclusivity

Queenie Choo, CEO of SUCCESS, one of the largest immigrant- and refugee-serving agencies in Canada, believes language is only one of a multitude of factors that contribute to political engagement of newcomers.

Pointing out that voter turnout among Chinese-Canadians, for example, is traditionally low, she asked. “Is it because of the language? Or, because there are other cultural factors?”

Aside from language, immigrant voters often face other, more daunting cultural barriers when it comes to casting a ballot.

“Maybe in their country of origin they don’t have a democratic system,” Choo said. “They don’t think that it’s part of their responsibility.”

A headshot of Queenie Choo, CEO of SUCCESS.
Queenie Choo believes diversity is a strength of Canada.

There may also be historical or institutional factors, she said. For example, it was not until 1947 that the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese-Canadians from voting, was repealed. Still, Choo acknowledged that election signs may play a symbolic role. She thinks that being inclusive is important.

“If we believe diversity is a strength of our country, then I believe that the opportunity to promote that inclusivity is important.”