New Brunswick

Confucius Institute a brainwashing program, say parents who pulled daughter from class

A Fredericton couple who pulled their daughter out of the controversial Confucius Institute in their neighbourhood school has discovered new details about the program.

Fredericton couple learns institute's latest contract prevents either side from cancelling early

Fredericton parents Parker Coates and Bronwyn Bonney say they took their daughter out of the Confucius Institute class at Connaught Street School because it was providing an incomplete picture of China. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

A Fredericton couple who pulled their daughter out of the controversial Confucius Institute in their neighbourhood school have discovered new details about the program.

Bronwyn Bonney and Parker Coates say they were alarmed last year that they weren't told their daughter was in the program, which is funded by the Chinese government and uses teachers from China.

They are the first parents to speak publicly about their objections to the program. It teaches Chinese language and culture in New Brunswick schools but does not allow discussion of the country's authoritarian government and its human rights violations.

"This program is inherently propaganda," Bonney said in an interview. "It's propaganda in that it's an effort to brainwash and influence people's ideas of a certain place.

"The reasons why these partnerships exist is because China wants to enhance its soft power globally. That means teaching students a one-sided story about their country: how do we raise awareness of China being an exclusively wonderful place."

New contract added new clause 

Bonney and Coates obtained copies of contracts between the province and the institute that show it has become more difficult for New Brunswick to pull out of the partnership.

The original 2007 contract allowed either side to cancel it with six months' notice, but the 2017 renewal agreement removed that clause at China's request.

The Confucius Institute has been in New Brunswick since 2007 and operated in 40 schools as of last year. Its course content is controlled by the Chinese government.

The institute teaches Chinese language and culture, including calligraphy, food and dance. But Coates says that's propaganda by omission, because there is no mention of China's lack of democracy.

"We're talking about a nation that right now has hundreds of thousands of people in internment camps for having the wrong kind of Chinese culture," Coates said.

"Chinese citizens who are Muslim or Falun Gong are being incarcerated, and we're welcoming this in to teach our children about Chinese culture. That just seems totally out of whack."

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says he wants to terminate the operation of the Confucius Institute in New Brunswick schools because of concerns it teaches only what the Chinese Communist Party approves. (Gilles Landry/Radio-Canada)

Education Minister Dominic Cardy announced in February he wanted the institute out of provincial schools by June. Premier Blaine Higgs later said the government has to respect the contract, which runs to 2022.

Ting Jeng, the foreign director for the Confucius Institute in New Brunswick, did not respond to an interview request.

China's consulate in Montreal also did not respond to questions sent by email. Consul General Chen Xueming recently met Higgs and discussed Cardy's decision.

Daughter pulled from class

Bonney and Coates pulled their daughter out of the 30-minutes-per-week classes for the 2018-19 school year.

They emphasized they love Connaught Street School. They call it "a warm and welcoming place" with great teaching staff.

But their concerns about the institute prompted them to file right-to-information requests about its dealings with the province.

The documents they obtained reveal that:

  • The original 2007 contract allowed the province or the institute to terminate the deal with six months' notice, freeing them from "any further obligations," but the 2017 version, which runs to 2022, prevents either side from pulling out "ahead of time."
  • The contract says if one side backs out, it must compensate the other side for "all the investment made under this Agreement, the legal expense and the indemnity for defamation."
  • A 2018 proposed syllabus for all 40 institute schools in the province suggests mixing China-approved social studies content with the existing New Brunswick curriculum, saying the institute's material could be "introduced into local social subject, combined and match[ed] with local teachers' lesson planning to complement each other."
  • The institute offers school and district officials 10-day trips to China every summer "to begin or strengthen their school's Chinese programs and partnerships." Participants pay for flights, but all expenses in China are covered by the institute.

Teachers travelled to China

Five teachers from Anglophone School District West, which includes Connaught Street School, took the trip last year, said spokesperson Judy Cole, but no one is going this year.

"Since it has become a political issue under debate in the provincial legislature, we are not in a position to comment," she said.

"The future of the program lies with the government."

The Confucius Institute has classrooms in 40 anglophone schools in New Brunswick communities, including Fredericton, Moncton, Bathurst and Saint John. (Confucius Institute of New Brunswick website)

A provincial spokesperson said eight educators in all took the trip last year.

Coates said the travel could be a "sweetener" that might affect how educators deal with complaints about the program.

He speculated that the new contract language making it harder for New Brunswick to pull out is China's response to what he called a "backlash" to the Confucius Institute worldwide.

Contracts cancelled or not renewed

Several universities in Canada, the U.S., Sweden and Germany have either cancelled plans for Confucius Institutes in the last five years or did not renew their contracts over concerns that the programs limit academic freedom on campuses.

The Toronto District School Board also cancelled plans to allow the institute in.

New Brunswick Department of Education spokesperson John McNeil said the institute asked for the change in the contract, "as they did with renewed agreements in other jurisdictions."

"At the time, both parties were pleased with the relationship and the clause was not included in the renewal agreement."

Higgs said last month that he supported Cardy's plan to "move the program outside our classrooms," but the government would have to "honour the contracts that we have in place."

In a letter last year to two parents, Anglophone West district official Shawna Allen-VanderToorn said that it's made clear to institute teachers from China that "they are not permitted to distribute propaganda of any kind."

Not a political event

But Bonney said the problem is not the pushing of pro-Chinese government material.

"In this context it's omission," she said. "The students don't talk about environmentalism. They don't talk about foreign relations. They don't talk about human rights violations. They don't talk about religion."

Higgs said last month that "keeping the human rights issues out of the classroom is not to make it a political event in the classroom."

And McNeil told CBC News that "student questions about Chinese politics, governance or human rights would be answered by New Brunswick teachers for a balanced, objective discussion."

A recent meeting in Montreal brought together, left to right, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Greg Thompson, Chinese Consul General Chen Xueming, and Premier Blaine Higgs. (Blaine Higgs/Twitter)

Jonathan Manthorpe, a Canadian journalist formerly based in Hong Kong who has written about China's attempts to influence Canada, has called the Confucius Institutes "a form of physical malware designed to pervert, distort and control the foreign universities, colleges and schools into which they are inserted."

The Opposition Liberals said in the legislature that Cardy's move to oust the institute might jeopardize New Brunswick's trade relationship with the lucrative Chinese export market.

But Bonney called the minister's decision "long overdue."

"We were very supportive."

She said she was concerned the political debate has focused on trade.

"Our children's right to explore complex topics at school and have their questions answered is not up for grabs for lobster sales."


Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.