New Brunswick

Cardy doubles down on China criticism, despite premier's call for softer approach

New Brunswick’s education minister is doubling down on his criticism of China and on his plan to remove a Chinese government education program from schools — despite his own leader’s call for a more cautious and diplomatic approach.

Liberal MLA urges Blaine Higgs to 'rein in this rogue minister'

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says he's made his position on the Confucius Institute clear to his colleagues in government. (Gilles Landry/Radio-Canada)

New Brunswick's education minister is doubling down on his criticism of China and on his plan to remove a Chinese government education program from schools — despite his own leader's call for a more cautious and diplomatic approach.

Dominic Cardy said he wants the Confucius Institute removed by June, and he doesn't plan to soften his criticism of China's authoritarian government.

"I will never apologize for speaking up very bluntly about human rights," he said Wednesday on CBC's Information Morning Moncton.

"I think it's core to who we are as a province, what we are as a country, and I will never stop talking about the centrality of human rights, because we're lucky to be in a country where we can criticize our government, unlike over a billion Chinese citizens who have no such freedoms."

Higgs reluctant

His comments risk putting him in conflict with Premier Blaine Higgs, who said Tuesday he didn't want the issue to jeopardize New Brunswick's efforts to expand its exports to China.

Higgs said in question period that his government would "follow the contractual obligations that we have" in the partnership with China.

But the next morning, Cardy said his objections "remain exactly as they were, and I look forward to [the institute] no longer being in our schools come June."

Asked if he wanted to cancel the contract "even though your premier says 'maybe not,'" Cardy responded, "Correct."

Obviously, it leads me to wonder who's in charge here. Who's running this province?- Chuck Chiasson, Liberal MLA

The Confucius Institute teaches New Brunswick students about Chinese language and culture but avoids discussions of the country's authoritarian, one-party system and its human rights record.

Cardy said earlier this year that he had heard complaints from students about the program's "one-dimensional" approach to teaching about China.

Higgs's call for a more diplomatic tack on the issue came after the Liberal Opposition said Cardy's criticism of China might set back New Brunswick's ability to export its products to the country.

Premier Blaine Higgs has called for a more diplomatic and practical approach to the issue, saying he didn’t want to jeopardize New Brunswick efforts to expand its exports to China. ( Joe McDonald/CBC)

Higgs said that in a meeting last week, China's consul-general in Montreal said he "would like to make changes and improvements" to address the concerns.

Cardy, who once worked for a U.S.-based non-profit agency promoting democracy abroad, brushed off the apparent offer to modify the program. 

"My objection is to the presence of a foreign government in the New Brunswick's school system, especially a government that has so little in common with our values," he said. He added that "spreading propaganda in our school system" is not appropriate "under any circumstances."

Asked if this put him at odds with Higgs, Cardy said he made his position "very clear to my leader and to my party colleagues.

"It's a very fundamental principle that I had before I came into this job."

He said his only concern about being named education minister was having to sign off on the Confucius Institute's presence.

Higgs did not speak to reporters at the legislature Wednesday about Cardy's latest comments.

Liberal MLA Chuck Chiasson called on the premier to "rein in this rogue minister" following Cardy's interview.

"Obviously, it leads me to wonder who's in charge here. Who's running this province? Is it the premier or the minister of education?"

In 28 schools

The institute operated in 28 New Brunswick schools in 2016, with more than 5,440 students taking part in 2016, according to its website. It first began operating in the province under the government of former Liberal premier Shawn Graham.

Critics of China's authoritarian system and its push for a greater role in world affairs have claimed the institute is a way to shape a more positive image of the country. In 2012, a former Canadian Security Intelligence Service called it a "Trojan horse."

As part of the program, a provincial government-owned company, Atlantic Education International, sells the New Brunswick school curriculum to private schools in China.

The debate comes at the same time China has cancelled the licences of two Canadian companies exporting canola to the country, a move seen as retaliation for Canada's arrest of a Chinese business executive wanted in the U.S. 

Sees risk to trade

Chiasson said he worries Cardy is putting New Brunswick's trade with China in jeopardy and refused to tell journalists whether he believes the Chinese government violates human rights.

"Whether they're violated or not, it's not up to me to decide," he said. "It's up to the federal government to provide their opinion on that.

"Raising human rights is a federal responsibility. We can teach them in our schools, and we should, but when it comes to acting on the global stage, it's not up to the minister. It's not his responsibility."  

Green MLA Megan Mitton said Cardy has raised a valid point about the Confucius Institute and what it teachers in New Brunswick schools. 

Contract up in 2022

"While cultural and language exchange is important, ultimately the curriculum should be written for New Brunswickers by New Brunswickers," she said.

Higgs said Tuesday he didn't know the duration of New Brunswick's contract with the Confucius Institute nor whether it included an exit clause. A government spokesperson said Wednesday the five-year agreement would expire in 2022.

CBC News requested a copy of the contract from the province in February but a copy was not provided.

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

With files from Information Morning Moncton

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