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Protesters gather outside the TDSB headquarters on Wednesday.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Canada's largest school board is joining a handful of other academic institutions in taking steps to sever its ties to a language and culture program controlled by the Chinese government.

A Toronto District School Board committee voted on Wednesday evening to terminate the Confucius Institute programs. All but one member on the planning and priorities committee voted in favour of terminating the accord.

The motion must now be approved by the full board of trustees at their next meeting later this month. If it is approved, the TDSB will join McMaster University and the University of Sherbrooke in cancelling their Confucius Institutes.

The vote followed presentations by 10 community organizations, with half speaking in favour of teaching elementary students Mandarin and other cultural programs offered by the Confucius Institute, and half vehemently opposed.

"If the Chinese government is attempting to infiltrate us, we have to resist with all our might," said Pamela Gough, one of six trustees who spoke passionately in favour of terminating the agreement.

However, not all trustees agreed. Two of them, including one who was not on the committee, said the vote should have been deferred until November – after the municipal elections – once they have received a report from TDSB staff on the Confucius Institute.

"This is setting the most horrible, horrible precedent," said trustee Gerri Gershon, adding that the vote should wait until staff complete their report.

During the committee meeting, Tao Thomas Qu was one who spoke in favour of the TDSB retaining its agreement with the Confucius Institute.

"Do not make it a political issue. It is about culture and language." He spoke to trustees on behalf of the Confederation of Chinese Canadian Organizations in Toronto.

Alice Huynh, a TDSB teacher, told the committee she has gathered signatures from 14,000 parents and community members opposing the Confucius Institute. "The debate should not be about the merits of learning Chinese," she said. "What we are absolutely against is giving the authority of teaching Chinese to an organization that admittedly has political purposes and who wants to influence our children."

Well before the meeting began, a huge number of protesters, both opposed to and for the school board's partnership with the Confucius Institute, forced security guards at the TDSB to lock the building.

Outside, police were called to separate the two opposing groups. Protesters carried signs that read "Stop CI" and "Support Confucius Institution." At one point, the anti-Confucius Institute side drowned out the pro side, by chanting "We love freedom."

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 agreement with the Confucius Institute generated controversy because instructors are trained to self-censor topics that are politically taboo in China.

TDSB chair Mari Rutka tabled the initial motion to delay teaching elementary students Mandarin and other culture programs offered by the Confucius Institute, beginning this academic year. 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.

Former TDSB chair Chris Bolton was the driving force behind the Confucius Institute. Mr. Bolton abruptly resigned in June, five months before his term as a trustee was to expire, and leaving his colleagues dealing with the fallout from the agreement.

Trustees have received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from parents alarmed over China's control of the programs. But over the past week, the TDSB has also received a petition from a group called the Confederation of Toronto Chinese Canadian Organizations, urging them to honour the school board's agreement with the Confucius Institute.

Trustees have also come under pressure from officials in China, who have warned them that dissolving the partnership would damage the board's relationship with its most lucrative market for fee-paying international students.

Follow Karen Howlett on Twitter: @kahowlettOpens in a new window
Follow Caroline Alphonso on Twitter: @calphonsoOpens in a new window

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