Trustees at Canada’s largest school board are taking their first formal steps to dissolve a controversial partnership with the Chinese government.

A Toronto District School Board committee will table a motion on Wednesday to terminate the agreement with the Confucius Institute. The motion is expected to pass, with six of nine trustees on the planning and priorities committee opposed to teaching elementary students Mandarin and other cultural programs offered by the institute, sources say. The motion must then be approved by the full board of trustees.

Trustees overwhelmingly voted in June to delay the rollout of the Confucius Institute to provide 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.

Trustee Irene Atkinson plans to table the motion to sever the accord at the planning and priorities committee. Ms. Atkinson said she has been inundated with e-mails from parents, grandparents and community members worried about the impact the partnership will have on students.

“The Confucius Institute has caused an alarming amount of upset,” Ms. Atkinson said in an interview.

A trustee who has read the agreement does not recall any penalties for cancelling it.

TDSB chair Mari Rutka tabled the initial motion to delay offering elementary students programs through the Confucius Institute, beginning in the 2014-15 school year. That motion called for TDSB staff to prepare a report for trustees on the Confucius Institute. Even though the report will not be ready until later this year, Ms. Rutka said it is important to deal with the issue before the new slate of trustees takes over the TDSB following the Oct. 27 municipal election.

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, leaving his colleagues on the board to deal with the fallout from the agreement with the Confucius Institute.

Trustees found themselves facing more questions than answers about an agreement unilaterally negotiated by Mr. Bolton. There is no explicit rule requiring school-board trustees to approve all agreements. But the deal with the Chinese government reflects the lack of openness at the board during Mr. Bolton’s time as chairman, trustees said.

Trustees have received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from parents alarmed over China’s control of the programs.

Not everyone is opposed, however. A group called the Confederation of Toronto Chinese Canadian Organizations sent a petition to all trustees last week, urging them to honour the school board’s agreement with the Confucius Institute. The petition says the group has about 100,000 members, “many of whom are your voters.”

Trustees have also come under pressure from officials in China. The Hunan Provincial Department of Education wrote to TDSB trustees in June, warning them that 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.”

The TDSB has already felt some of the backlash. China is the most lucrative market for international students, with pupils paying as much as $14,000 in tuition a year to study at the TDSB.

The board recently sought vendors interested in operating a promotion and recruitment office in China, but received no responses. Education director Donna Quan told trustees in August in an internal e-mail, obtained by The Globe and Mail, that feedback indicated potential vendors saw working with the school board as “a risk.” She did not elaborate.

The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Sep. 29 2014, 3:00 AM EDT
Last updated Monday, Sep. 29 2014, 3:00 AM EDT