The Toronto District School Board has officially severed its ties to a Confucius Institute subsidized and controlled by the government of China.

Trustees overwhelmingly voted Wednesday night in favour of terminating an agreement that would have taught elementary students Mandarin and other cultural programs controlled by China’s Ministry of Education. Only two trustees opposed the motion, which also requires the school board to repay $225,000 advanced to it by the Chinese government.

The controversy first erupted in June after The Globe and Mail revealed that the TDSB was set to offer Confucius Institute programs in September.

Wednesday night’s vote followed heated debate among trustees, revealing gaps in their understanding of how the agreement came about in the first place. Questions were raised as to when the agreement was initially signed, how many trustees travelled to China in connection with it and how much of the $225,000 was used for airfares and accommodations.

Sheila Cary-Meagher, a long-time trustee and an ally of former chair Chris Bolton, said she was “disgusted” with her colleagues for not standing up against the “tsunami” of community members opposing to the partnership.

Several trustees, however, wanted to put the Confucius Institute experience behind the board. “This thing needs to be killed off,” said trustee John Hastings.

The vote capped several months of uncertainty over the fate of the partnership, leaving Canada’s largest school board steeped in controversy over the influence China would have on its curriculum.

In the days leading up to the meeting, the Chinese government sent a letter to the TDSB, proposing to terminate the partnership and blaming the school board for not moving forward.

Mr. Bolton was the driving force behind the partnership with the Confucius Institute. He abruptly resigned in June, leaving his colleagues on the board to deal with the fallout from the agreement.

Trustees have been deluged with e-mails and phone calls from parents, many of whom expressed concerns about Confucius Institute instructors who are trained to self-censor topics that are politically taboo in China.

But the TDSB garnered support from other community groups for the Confucius Institute. Both sides protested outside the TDSB on Wednesday.

The cancellation of the accord is the latest setback for China and its effort to project soft power by using the government-funded Confucius Institutes to improve its image around the world.

McMaster University and the University of Sherbrooke have also closed their Confucius Institutes, leaving 10 operating in postsecondary institutions in Canada. The University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University in the United States also recently shuttered their institutes amid concerns about the impingement of academic freedoms.

David Mulroney, a former ambassador to China, said the controversy over the institutes demonstrates the need to make such agreements public and ensure that foreign countries comply with Canada’s traditions of academic freedom.

“We’re seeing really the end of the free ride that Confucius Institutes have had, particularly in North America,” Mr. Mulroney said in an interview. “I don’t think you’re going to see as many new Confucius Institutes in the wake of the high-profile crisis to date.”

Wednesday’s vote was not a surprise – a committee of the board took steps earlier this month to terminate the agreement. The committee’s motion to dissolve the agreement followed presentations by 10 community organizations, with half vehemently opposed to programs offered by the Confucius Institute and half speaking in favour, saying it only teaches language and has nothing to do with politics.

But Mari Rutka, chair of the board, countered that language is “the heart” of a nation and its culture.

Ms. Rutka tabled a motion in June to delay the rollout of the institute, scheduled for the current academic year, to give TDSB staff an opportunity to investigate concerns. Not all trustees supported her. Sheila Ward, a long-time trustee and an ally of Mr. Bolton, argued against the motion, saying it was not a good use of staff’s time to go on a “fishing expedition.”

Ms. Ward said on Wednesday she did not initially understand what the TDSB was getting into and now supports cancelling the agreement.

“I really screwed up and I screwed up badly,” she said.

The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Oct. 29 2014, 9:18 PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Oct. 29 2014, 10:41 PM EDT