The Toronto District School Board's newly minted Confucius Institute is in jeopardy after a committee of trustees recommended suspending its partnership with the Chinese government.
The board's planning and priorities committee passed a motion on Wednesday evening calling on all TDSB trustees and staff to investigate concerns about censorship by the Chinese government, which is quietly spreading its reach into Canadian classrooms through language and culture programs with virtually no oversight. The board will vote on the committee's recommendation on June 18.
TDSB trustee and committee member Mari Rutka put the motion forward at Wednesday's meeting. "There are compelling concerns we need to be able to address before we determine the future of this partnership," she told The Globe and Mail.
The motion is a potential setback for TDSB chair Chris Bolton, the driving force behind the partnership with the Chinese government, and comes just weeks after he was host of a banquet to mark the official opening of the Confucius Institute of Toronto.
The motion is also an about-face for some trustees, who just last month rejected an earlier call to examine concerns raised by university faculty in Canada about the organization, which trains instructors to self-censor topics that are politically taboo in China.
In recent days, trustees have been inundated with e-mails from parents and community members expressing concerns about the TDSB's plan to roll out courses in September to elementary students studying Mandarin through its Confucius Institute.
Michael Lewis said he is concerned about the subtle influence the Chinese government could have on his 13-year-old daughter, who attends Winchester Public School in Toronto's Cabbagetown neighbourhood. He recently launched a website, saynotoci.com, urging parents to speak out against the TDSB's Confucius Institute. More than 600 parents and community members have signed his online petition.
"I don't want my child growing up with that type of influence occurring [at the TDSB]," said Mr. Lewis, a member of Falun Gong, a group the Chinese government calls an illegal cult. "It's hard to understand why [the TDSB] would choose to not scrutinize this."
School boards in British Columbia and Alberta offer programs through Confucius institutes.
The institutes operate under the supervision of the Beijing head of the Chinese Language Council International, a state agency known as Hanban. They help school boards build their brand in China. Many boards struggle with declining enrolment and provincial budget cuts, and are trying to attract international students, who pay thousands of dollars to attend Canadian schools, as a way to generate revenue. China is a key market.
"We're well known in China, because we have a Confucius Institute," said Patricia Gartland, assistant superintendent of international education and continuing education at the Coquitlam School District in B.C.
Marshall Sahlins, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago who has written extensively about Confucius Institutes, said TDSB trustees have an obligation to examine concerns about censorship, including a former instructor at McMaster University who complained she was forced to hide her spiritual belief in Falun Gong. "Shouldn't [trustees] be afraid?" he asked.
McMaster and the Université de Sherbrooke have closed their Confucius Institutes, leaving 10 operating in postsecondary institutions in Canada. And at least one school board – Calgary – considered opening a Confucius classroom, but is no longer pursuing one.
Rodrigo Fuentes, co-director of the Confucius Institute of Toronto, said in an earlier interview that the TDSB would vet teaching materials donated by Hanban and plans to have one of its own teachers in classrooms with instructors from China.
"I would not plan anything that would contravene any of our board policies," Mr. Fuentes said.
Critics say the institutes should not be expanded beyond the postsecondary level to children in their formative years. More than 400 institutes operate worldwide, with most in universities and colleges.
Clive Ansley, a lawyer in Courtenay, B.C., and an expert on China's judicial system, said school-age children are more impressionable than university students.
"The lower the age of the students involved," he said, "the more serious the implications become."
Canadian educators involved with the institutes extol the benefits of students learning the Chinese language and culture. The Coquitlam School District opened a Confucius Institute in 2011 and offers tuition-based Mandarin courses after school to children and adults. B.C. education ministry spokesman Ben Green said the province gives trustees "great autonomy" on what programs schools offer.
Coquitlam received $1-million worth of books and other teaching materials from Hanban as well as about $100,000 in annual funding. Some resources are used for a Mandarin bilingual program in elementary schools.
Ms. Gartland said she has never been told to avoid topics deemed off limits to the Chinese government. But asked how the institute marked the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, she said, "I don't think it's coming up in our classes."
Diana Bolan, an assistant superintendent at the Edmonton Public School Board, said the board's 16 Kindergarten to Grade 12 Confucius classes are about teaching students Mandarin. "I have no comment on anything political whatsoever," she said.