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Protesters stand outside the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) building to protest a TDSB partnership with the Beijing-sponsored Confucius Institute in Toronto, Wednesday June 18, 2014 (Mark Blinch For The Globe and Mail)
Protesters stand outside the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) building to protest a TDSB partnership with the Beijing-sponsored Confucius Institute in Toronto, Wednesday June 18, 2014 (Mark Blinch For The Globe and Mail)

Toronto trustees had no say in Confucius Institute agreement Add to ...

Trustees of Canada’s largest school board were never given an opportunity to vet or approve a controversial agreement with the Chinese government to offer students culture programs subsidized and controlled by Beijing, documents show.

Briefing notes obtained by The Globe and Mail reveal that trustees of the Toronto District School Board were not informed regarding key aspects of the recently opened Confucius Institute, including the fact that instructors are trained to self-censor topics that are politically taboo in China. The only information trustees received was contained in the sparse briefing notes that added little to what could be found online.

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Former TDSB chair Chris Bolton was the driving force behind the institute. He resigned suddenly this month, leaving trustees to deal with the fallout from the venture, including hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from worried parents. Trustees passed a motion at a meeting this month to delay the rollout of Mandarin courses to elementary students in September. The motion says the delay will give trustees time to gather information about the institute and “determine the future” of the TDSB’s partnership with the Chinese government.

There is no explicit rule that all agreements have to be approved by school-board trustees. But the secretive agreement with the Chinese government reflects the lack of openness at the board during Mr. Bolton’s stewardship, trustees said. It is extremely difficult for trustees to answer to their constituents, they said, when they have not been part of the decision making.

Long-time trustee Stephnie Payne said Mr. Bolton “did all of us an injustice” by resigning just days before trustees debated the fate of the Confucius Institute at this month’s meeting, where dozens of parents and others packed the public gallery to protest the initiative.

“He’s gone and we have to clean up his mess,” Ms. Payne said in an interview. “We’re the ones who have to face [people] opposing this. We shouldn’t have had to do that.”

Mr. Bolton’s successor, Mari Rutka, has vowed to break with the TDSB’s past by making governance more transparent and by coming up with clearly articulated policies on partnerships with foreign governments. The TDSB’s Confucius Institute agreement is an example, she said, of where the board can do a better job sharing information. “Clearly, there was more to this than we knew at the time,” she said in an interview.

Mr. Bolton did not respond to requests from The Globe for comment.

TDSB spokeswoman Shari Schwartz-Maltz confirmed that trustees had no say in approving the partnership with the Chinese government. A package of documents prepared by staff for trustees, and obtained by The Globe, shows that trustees received four briefing notes on the TDSB’s Confucius Institute initiative. The first note, dated Jan. 20, 2010, says the TDSB is “exploring the viability” of establishing an institute. The longest briefing note at 2 1/2 pages and dated Nov. 3, 2010, says the TDSB has signed an agreement with the Chinese government that has been reviewed by the board’s lawyers. The main goals of the partnership, the note says, is to “promote the development of Chinese language education by expanding the opportunities for students to learn Mandarin and understand the culture, history and traditions of China.”

Mr. Bolton informed trustees at a board meeting in May, 2012, that a formal signing ceremony took place in Ottawa the previous month with a delegation led by him and the head of the Chinese Language Council International, a state agency known as Hanban. The TDSB officially opened its institute last month, ‎just before the American Association of University Professors became the latest group of educators to raise alarms about censorship. Two Canadian universities – McMaster University and the Université de Sherbrooke – have closed their institutes.

With the future of the TDSB’s institute now in jeopardy, trustees are coming under pressure from Chinese officials, who have written to them warning that backing out of the TDSB’s partnership with Beijing would hurt Chinese-Canadian relations.

“It gets to the point where you’re just bombarded and bombarded by both sides,” trustee Chris Tonks said at the TDSB meeting. “I believe we were ambushed on this.”

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