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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks at a press conference in Toronto on July 24, 2014.MARK BLINCH/The Globe and Mail

Kathleen Wynne is pledging to promote free speech and human rights in a visit to China later this month – a sharp departure from the custom of leaving such thorny diplomatic issues to Ottawa.

The Ontario Premier came down squarely on the side of Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters Wednesday, even as Beijing ratcheted up its rhetoric and other provincial leaders skirted the issue.


"No matter where I am, I will reinforce my belief and our commitment to freedom of speech and peoples' ability to gather and express themselves peacefully," she said at Queen's Park. "I will say that anywhere, and I will continue to reinforce it."

The trade mission, which also includes the premiers of Quebec and Prince Edward Island, comes at a rocky time. On top of the growing unrest in Hong Kong, accusations of espionage and battles over the Confucius Institute's attempts to enter this country's classrooms have added tension to Sino-Canadian relations.

But Ms. Wynne said she would not hesitate to tell Chinese officials she meets during the trip that peaceful demonstrations must be allowed in their country. She said she gave China's consul-general exactly that message in a meeting earlier this week.

"For me, it's very important that we defend the right of people to express their opinion in Canada, in China, in the world," she said.

Traditionally, provinces have focused exclusively on trade during visits to China, contending that discussions over democracy are the purview of the federal government.

Ms. Wynne will travel to Nanjing and Shanghai with 60 Ontario business leaders before heading to Beijing to join a larger delegation led by PEI Premier Robert Ghiz. Mr. Ghiz said he was keeping abreast of the protests. He avoided weighing in on what the Chinese government should do.

"We are monitoring and watching the situation in Hong Kong very closely," he said in a statement, adding he has always believed "that concerns about human rights in China are best addressed through increased contact between China and Western nations."

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard's spokesman, Harold Fortin, refused to answer human rights-related questions on China.

The fault lines of the battle for democracy in China have been increasingly apparent in Canada.

At the Toronto District School Board on Wednesday, trustees moved to end a deal with the Confucius Institute (CI), which was to supply Mandarin teachers to local schools. The organization is controversial because of its ties to Beijing's Ministry of Education. CI instructors are trained to censor politically taboo subjects.

Hundreds of people – some against the institute and some in favour – faced off outside the meeting Wednesday, with the anti-CI faction drowning out the organization's fans with chants of "we love freedom."

Sino-Canadian relations have also been shaken by accusations and counter-accusations of cloak-and-dagger derring-do. In July, the federal government accused Beijing of launching a cyberattack that cracked into computers at the National Research Council. Days later, the Chinese government detained a Canadian couple, Kevin and Julia Garratt, and accused them of spying.

With a report from Karen Howlett in Toronto