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Canada China proposes to cut ties with Toronto school board ahead of vote

Protesters for and against the Confucius Institute gather outside the Toronto District School Board headquarters in Toronto, Ontario, Wednesday, October 1, 2014. Hundreds of protesters on both sides had to be separated by police as they shouted and carried signs.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The Chinese government has proposed axing a controversial partnership with Canada's largest school board days ahead of a trustee vote on the issue.

Toronto District School Board trustees were expected to terminate the agreement with the Confucius Institute at a meeting next Wednesday, potentially creating an embarrassing rejection for leadership in Beijing.

But on Thursday, in a letter to education director Donna Quan obtained by The Globe and Mail, the head of the Hunan Provincial Department of Education pointed a finger at the TDSB for not moving forward with the agreement this fall to teach elementary students Mandarin and other cultural programs offered by the institute, and proposed terminating the partnership.

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"Given that the TDSB failed to fulfill our agreement on the Confucius Institute, the co-operation between our two parties cannot proceed," wrote director-general Kermin Wong.

The agreement with the Confucius Institute, which is affiliated with China's Ministry of Education, generated controversy because instructors are trained to self-censor topics that are politically taboo in China. In addition, former board chair Chris Bolton was the driving force behind the Confucius Institute, which did not receive approval from trustees, who were provided with minimal information.

Mr. Bolton abruptly resigned in June, five months before his term was to expire. That left trustees to deal with the fallout from the Confucius Institute agreement, including hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from parents worried over China's control of the programs.

Trustee Pamela Gough said the move by Chinese officials to dissolve the agreement is a pre-emptive measure. "My read on it is they want to terminate the agreement before it's terminated on them as a way of saving face," she said in an interview.

Ms. Gough is among the trustees who have been uneasy about the TDSB's partnership with the Chinese government. She said there could be damage to dissolving the agreement, including how it will affect the board's relationship with its most lucrative market for fee-paying international students. "We'll just have to wait and see how it plays out," she said.

Chinese officials have previously warned trustees against backing out of the board's partnership with the Beijing-sponsored cultural centre, suggesting that doing so would hurt relations.

TDSB trustees overwhelmingly voted in June to delay the rollout of the Confucius Institute and allow them an opportunity to investigate concerns about culture programs controlled by China's Ministry of Education. The motion called for TDSB staff to prepare a report for trustees on the institute. But the report won't be ready until November – after the municipal elections.

TDSB spokesman Ryan Bird said the letter from Hunan will be brought to Wednesday's board meeting, and that the motion to sever the school board's ties with the Confucius Institute remains on the agenda. The TDSB will have to pay about $215,000 to Chinese officials if the agreement is terminated, money that was provided for start-up costs and material, Mr. Bird said.

TDSB chair Mari Rutka, who tabled the initial motion, said the partnership has caused deep divisions at the board. "For it to conclude, it will certainly cause less division," she said.

If it cancels the agreement, the TDSB would join a handful of other academic institutions, including McMaster University, the University of Sherbrooke and, more recently, the University of Chicago, that have severed ties with the institute.

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