Trustees of the Toronto District School Board have passed a motion to delay the rollout of Mandarin courses to elementary students in September.
Trustees overwhelmingly voted for the delay on Wednesday evening, with three opposed. The vote followed heated debate among trustees of Canada's largest school board, with some accusing their colleagues of being "asleep at the switch" for raising concerns about the partnership with China's Confucius Institute only now, and others calling on the board to sever its ties altogether with the Chinese government.
"I don't think suspension is strong enough," trustee Irene Atkinson said, urging her colleagues to rip up the agreement rather than just delay its implementation.
Ms. Atkinson said she is getting 200 e-mails a day from "anxiety-ridden people who want nothing to do with the institute."
Trustee Pamela Gough echoed that sentiment, saying she is not comfortable with an organization that "causes such discomfort in our community." At the other end of the spectrum, trustee Howard Kaplan said, "I don't see what the big fuss is," and urged the school board to get on with implementing the agreement.
Former TDSB chair Chris Bolton was the driving force behind the Confucius Institute, which opened last month and was set to roll out Mandarin courses to elementary students this September.
Mr. Bolton resigned last Friday as chair and a trustee, citing personal reasons. Trustees elected his successor on Wednesday – vice-chair Mari Rutka, who promised to break with the school board's controversial past by making it more transparent.
Ms. Rutka told reporters the TDSB's secretive agreement with the Chinese government is typical of the lack of openness. Many trustees had little idea what they were getting into when they approved the Confucius Institute, she said.
It was Ms. Rutka who tabled the motion to suspend the Confucius Institute to give trustees an opportunity to investigate concerns about censorship by the Chinese government.
Trustees have been inundated with telephone calls and e-mails from parents who are worried about the school board's venture with the Chinese government. Hundreds of them were at the meeting on Wednesday evening.
Michael Craig of Amnesty International and China Rights Network, told reporters at the meeting that he does not want his four grandchildren to get a "white-washed" view of
"We are all deeply concerned about the incursion of Confucius Institutes into our schools," he said.
More than 400 Confucius institutes operate worldwide, most in universities and colleges. The TDSB was the third school board in Canada to open an institute. Boards in Coquitlam, B.C., and Edmonton also offer programs subsidized and controlled by the Chinese government with no oversight by provincial education ministries.
The institutes are seen as a global "soft-power" outreach effort by the Chinese government, funding foreign language and culture centres to foster good will.
Critics of the Confucius Institutes suggest there is another agenda. The American Association of University Professors is the latest group of educators to raise alarms about an organization whose instructors are trained to self-censor topics that are politically taboo in China. The association warned U.S. universities this month to put restraints on where the institutes operate and what they teach.
On the eve of Wednesday's meeting, Chinese officials wrote to TDSB trustees warning them against backing out of the school board's partnership with the Beijing-sponsored cultural centre, suggesting that doing so would impair Chinese-Canadian relations.
"If the Confucius Institute in Toronto was suspended, there would be a great damage to the relationship between the two sides, which is hard for us to accept," reads one of two nearly identical June 17 letters from Chinese government officials.
The letters obtained by The Globe and Mail contain some of the same wording and were sent by the Hunan Provincial Department of Education and the Confucius Institute Headquarters in Beijing.
The Department of Education letter points out that Chinese officials have gone to great lengths to pick the right people for the Toronto facility. "We elaborately selected a director as well as skilled teachers and volunteers from schools and colleges throughout Hunan Province," the letter says. "They are prepared and invested a lot for working in Canada."