Canada's largest school district ended a planned partnership with China's government-funded Confucius Institute on Wednesday, a move likely to irritate Beijing just days before Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to visit.
Trustees at the Toronto District School Board, which oversees public schools with 232,000 students, severed its ties to the language and cultural program after parents, teachers and students protested against any involvement of the Chinese government in Canadian schools.
The move follows similar cancellations of Confucius Institute programs at universities in Canada and the United States amid concerns they restrict academic freedom, conduct surveillance of Chinese students abroad and promote the political aims of China's ruling Communist Party.
"It is clear to me that this partnership is not aligned with TDSB and community values, and its continuation is not appropriate," Trustee Pamela Gough said in an email before the vote.
"My concern is that the Confucius Institute is directly controlled by the Communist Party of China, and there is irrefutable evidence that the party exerts its influence through (the institute), for example in restricting freedom of speech on the part of (its) teachers hired in China.".
The cancellation could further strain bilateral relations between Ottawa and Beijing. Harper is expected to visit China next week ahead of a multilateral summit as the two countries seek to resolve disputes over cybersecurity and spying.
The Prime Minister's Office was not immediately available for comment. The Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not respond to requests for comment.
China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying has rejected criticism of the Institute, saying after previous cancellations that it was "impossible" that the programs would threaten academic freedom or integrity.
Relations between the two countries were damaged when China detained a Canadian couple living near its sensitive border with North Korea on suspicion of espionage in August. No formal charges have been brought against the couple, Kevin and Julia Garratt, who are being held separately in near isolation, according to their son.
Charles Burton, a professor at Brock University, said Beijing is certain to take note of the high-profile cancellation of the Confucius Institute in Toronto schools.
"It will be taken very badly in China for sure," said Burton, a former Canadian diplomat who served two tours in China.
"Canada's reputation in China as being hostile to Chinese foreign policy goals will be enhanced by the fact of Canada's largest school board causing the Chinese side to lose face by openly and publicly denouncing the idea of a Confucius Institute."
Stopped before starting
Toronto had initially hoped to use the Confucius Institute, a non-profit tasked with promoting China's culture and image around the world, to offer mostly after-school programming to teach Mandarin, Chinese art and culture to elementary students.
But a groundswell of opposition from those opposed to the Chinese government role stopped the partnership before it started, even though some trustees and teachers argued the program was a good way to offer enrichment opportunities sought by students.
Mandarin classes are popular in some parts of Canada among students and parents who see the language as a path to an international career.
Chinese is the third most spoken language in Canada, after English and French, and about 10.5 percent of newcomers to Canada between 2006 and 2011 were from China, according to Statistics Canada.
Earlier in October, Pennsylvania State University ended its five-year relationship with the institute, citing differences with the Chinese government agency that controls and funds it, and the University of Chicago severed its ties in September.
While some Canadian universities have partnered with the Confucius Institute to offer courses in Chinese language and culture for credit, Brock's professor Burton said the high profile rejection of the institute in recent months means future partnerships are increasingly unlikely.
"I think any new Confucius Institutes that will be opened will be subject to more scrutiny and lead to the same kind of popular response," said Burton. "The discourse is that they are a negative, and aren't of benefit to the recipient."