China’s Confucius Institute — benevolent cultural force or propaganda arm operating in Canadian schools?

After tying his sneaker shoelace, Laur An-Yochim jumps back to his feet. 

Gym is his favourite class, and the fifth-grader does not intend to miss a moment of physical literacy consultant Stacey Hannay’s instructions.

“What is this in Mandarin?” Hannay asks, hopping around the basketball court inside Kildare School in Edmonton.

The students yell the answer, then move along to a game that involves finding hidden trinkets underneath rows of plastic cups, following directions shouted in English and Mandarin. 

Kildare is one of 14 schools in the Edmonton Public School Board’s jurisdiction that takes part in programming offered by the Confucius Institute. That includes Mandarin classes but also other subjects taught in Mandarin, ranging from physical education to math.

The Institute is partly funded by China’s Ministry of Education and offers programming at elementary and high schools, as well as colleges and universities across Canada. China provides annual funding to run the programs as well as Chinese instructors who are are paid by China. In Edmonton’s case, they work alongside the school’s regular teachers to deliver language immersion programming.

Operates around the world

Much of Confucius Institute programming consists of classes in language and aspects of Chinese culture, such as calligraphy. China says it helps operate more than 500 of them around the world. In Canada, eight colleges and universities and three school boards have signed agreements with the organization. 

Some critics, including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), accuse the Institute of political interference and censorship in some of its classes, but the EPSB says it hasn’t experienced those problems and has had thousands of its students complete the program since it first struck an agreement with Beijing in 2007.

For An-Yochim and other students, the immersion program means his Mandarin is as smooth as his English. He switches effortlessly between the two and says knowing one of the world’s most widely spoken languages has allowed him to connect with his grandparents when he visits China annually.

“They say every year, ‘Wow, how are you this tall? Or, ‘Your Chinese is really good this year,'” he said. 

WATCH | Students at Kildare School in Edmonton test out their Mandarin:

Students at Kildare School in Edmonton explain what they get out of the Manadarin classes offered by the Confucius Institute. 1:13

School board trustees flown to China

The Edmonton school board insists it carefully reviews teaching materials and has no concerns about controversial subjects getting suppressed in class.

The board receives annual funding from China to run the program, and 10 EPSB delegates flew there to renew the deal last October at Beijing’s expense.

“I needed to go to see what it is, what does this look like? Right? What is the value?” said Trisha Estabrooks, the board’s chairperson and a former CBC News journalist, who was part of the delegation, there for six days.

EPSB board chair Trisha Estabrooks was among 10 delegates who flew to China on Beijing’s dime to renew the board’s Confucius agreement last year. She went for six days while others stayed a week or two. (Terry Reith/CBC)

“I learned about the value that some of our principals in Edmonton Public see in having that partnership.” 

Estabrooks does not believe her independence as a trustee was compromised by having the trip expenses covered by China. 

 “Taxpayer dollars were not used,” she said. 

“I’d be concerned about the optics if Alberta taxpayer dollars were used to pay for my trip to China. I would not have gone on that trip.” 

Money not only concern, critics say

But Kathleen Lowrey, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Alberta, doesn’t want her nine-year-old daughter anywhere near Confucius programs.

“We’re inviting them into elementary schools that Canadian taxpayers have paid for,” she said. “It’s important to separate Chinese culture and language and civilization from the Chinese state.” 

Lowrey supports student exposure to Chinese culture, but she worries the country’s government “has very different values from Canada.” She cited the example of two Canadian citizens — Fan Wei and Robert Lloyd Schellenberg — who were sentenced to death in China for drug offences.

Cultural anthropologist Kathleen Lowery spoke out against the Edmonton Public School Board’s agreement renewal last year. (Peter Evans/CBC )

Some schools that originally took on Confucius Institute programs have since severed their ties. In 2013, McMaster University in Hamilton ended its contract with the organization after a teacher, Sonia Zhao, left the Institute, citing discriminatory hiring practices over her membership in the Falun Gong religious group.

The Toronto District School Board dropped out of a partnership before it got off the ground five years ago. 

At the time, Concordia and McGill universities in Montreal told CBC they were approached by China but never signed up. McGill cited a lack of safeguards to ensure its academic freedoms.

New Brunswick’s Education Department, meanwhile, is opting out completely by 2022, calling the program “Chinese propaganda.”

CSIS flags institute as propaganda tool

A 2013 intelligence report by CSIS warned that Chinese leaders identified Confucius as “an organization for spreading propaganda and building soft power” and spoke of a “perception that CIs do not allow discussion of topics that the Chinese government deems sensitive,” such as the political situation in Tibet and Taiwan or the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. 

Katelyn Chau, centre, focuses on a problem-solving exercise in class at Kildare School. The Edmonton Public School Board says 2,143 students enrolled in its Confucius program during this academic year. (Terry Reith/CBC )

Other foreign-government funded institutions promoting culture and education operate in Canada, including Germany’s Goethe Institute, Spain’s Cervantes Institute and the British Council, but CSIS placed the Confucius Institute in a different category.

“Unlike the British Council, whose charter ensures that it is free from political interference, the CIs are closely linked to the Chinese part state,” the report said.

In 2014, the director of the Confucius Institute in Quebec told CBC she was visited by CSIS agents shortly after setting up shop in Montreal, and they only left her alone after she threatened to file a human-rights complaint.

Various levels of transparency

Determining exactly what kind of contracts are in place between Canadian schools and the Confucius Institute can be tricky. 

CBC News reached out to eight higher-education institutions to find out about their agreements with China. Five of them didn’t respond: 

  • Dawson College in Montreal.
  • Seneca College in Toronto.
  • University of Waterloo.
  • Carleton University.
  • Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario.

The universities of Saskatchewan and Regina and St. Mary’s University in Halifax disclosed that they renewed their contracts in 2016 but only the Saskatchewan schools provided copies to CBC News.

St. Mary’s wanted CBC to fill out a freedom of information request.

The Coquitlam School District in British Columbia and the Edmonton Public School Board provided copies of their agreements. The two boards’ contracts specify that China’s role will include providing a set amount of annual funding but don’t spell out an amount other than a one-time “start-up” contribution of $150,000 in Coquitlam’s case. 

Pay or set limits, ex-diplomat says

If Canadian educational institutions have to accept foreign funding, they should control the curriculum, said Gordon Houlden, a former diplomat with the Canadian government who has worked in Hong Kong and Beijing.

Gordon Houlden, the director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, says universities and colleges should pay more heed to concerns about political interference and censorship at Confucius Institutes than grade or high schools. (Terry Reith/CBC)

“If there isn’t enough money available, it’s very hard sometimes … to say no,” said Houlden, who now heads the China Institute at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, which is mostly funded by the province and receives no money from China.

Houlden says young Canadians should continue learning about an important economic power like China, but the funding for any such education programs should come from local governments or school boards. 

“The 21st century will be, in my view, dominated by Asia,” he said.

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