Skip to main content

Toronto District School Board chair Chris Bolton was the driving force behind the Confucius Institute partnership.Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

Canada's largest school board has opened a Confucius Institute, bringing to Toronto students a controversial global language and cultural outreach effort that is controlled by the Chinese government.

The TDSB is embracing the institute just as several universities are severing their ties with it because of restrictions China has placed on academic discourse and fears of political censorship. The institutes offer language and culture programs subsidized by China's government. The academic activities are supervised by the Beijing head of the Chinese Language Council International, a state agency commonly known as Hanban.

Many colleges and universities have been keen to forge partnerships with the economic superpower to enhance their international language and culture programs with financial support and learning materials from Hanban. The TDSB is the second school board in Canada after Edmonton to launch such an initiative.

The Confucius Institute of Toronto officially opened this week in an office at Central Commerce Collegiate, a high school in Toronto's Little Italy. There, an official from China is working on developing language and culture programs with a staff member from the board's continuing and international education department. Details on programs are still being finalized, spokeswoman Shari Schwartz-Maltz said.

The University of Manitoba rejected a Confucius Institute in 2011 over concerns about political censorship. McMaster University in Hamilton shut its institute last summer after a human rights complaint. The Globe and Mail reported that Sonia Zhao, who came to teach at McMaster's institute in 2011, told the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario her employment contract forced her to hide her belief in Falun Gong, a spiritual movement the Chinese government deems dangerous. The University of Sherbrooke in Quebec announced in December that it was shuttering its institute.

Ms. Schwartz-Maltz said the Toronto District School Board is planning a "light rollout" of programs through the Confucius Institute next September. Rodrigo Fuentes, co-director of the institute, said on Thursday evening that he is not planning anything "that would contravene any of our board policies."

The TDSB held a banquet on Thursday evening at a Chinese restaurant, where guests dined on crispy chicken delight and braised yifu noodle to celebrate the opening – one of 440 similar outposts worldwide, including 12 others in Canada. The institutes' promotion of language and culture is widely seen as China's soft-power "charm offensive."

TDSB chair Chris Bolton, the driving force behind the partnership, said in 2012 that the institute is a "positive opportunity" because the TDSB has many Asian students and a thriving international languages program.

"We're interested in supporting the first language and culture of our students to make sure that they understand their history in order to understand their place in Canada," Mr. Bolton said.

But James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said Canadian universities and colleges are compromising their integrity by allowing a government known for political censorship to have a voice in academic matters. "We feel there's no place on a campus or in a proper educational setting where political direction should shape what teachers and students can discuss," Dr. Turk said in an interview.

Dr. Turk's association called on other universities and colleges last December to sever their ties as well.

Unlike some of the other schools, Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., is satisfied that its agreement for a Confucius Institute ensures that no official has influence over the school's hiring decisions or curriculum. "It is difficult for any politically neutral person to claim that Brock's CI is compromising its academic integrity," spokesman Kevin Cavanagh said.

As for the TDSB, trustees last week voted against asking staff to try to investigate the validity of allegations that the Confucius Institute limits free discussion about China.

"This is one of those fishing expeditions that really makes me nervous," trustee Sheila Ward said.

Trustees adopted a motion to create a Confucius Institute in 2010. But the initiative dates back to 2007, when Mr. Bolton recommended setting one up at Central Commerce. Students in international language classes from junior kindergarten to Grade 12 "would benefit from resources that would be part of the Confucius Institute," the motion says.

Dr. Turk said it is "irresponsible" for trustees not to investigate concerns raised by his group. "The fact that they would subject their students to a program and to teaching that is partially dictated by the political interests of the government of China is unacceptable," he said.

Mr. Bolton did not return e-mail and phone messages from The Globe.