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China has no influence on Coquitlam schools, say trustees, as they double down on Confucius Inst.

School district seeks to end confusion about Confucius Institute with name change while trustees oppose motion for independent review
Participants in Confucius Day 2019 participate in a group photo
Participants in Confucius Day 2019 participate in a group photo, which includes School District 43 superintendent Patricia Gartland and Coquitlam trustees Barb Hobson and Jennifer Blatherwick.

School District 43 has removed the name “Confucius” from the Confucius Institute to better reflect how the language and cultural program operates and is funded, according to SD43’s top official.

Superintendent Patricia Gartland told trustees at a Zoom board meeting Tuesday, Oct. 13 that SD43’s popular after school program is no longer funded by Hanban, China’s Education Ministry, and the roughly $300,000 in annual grants for teachers and materials will now be coming from the South China Normal University in Guangzhou, China.

“We are already working on revising the website to reflect the fact we are non-governmental. It’s simply a sister school relationship, it’s non-profit, non-governmental,” said Gartland.

The program, which provides Chinese language and cultural programs to 440 students, will now be called the Chinese Language and Culture Institute in Coquitlam. Gartland stressed that the teachers are Canadian and have teaching certificates, bachelor’s or masters’ degrees and the program has always been independent of the Chinese government.


Still, some trustees expressed concerns that the Coquitlam cultural and language program is suffering from poor optics because it’s being criticized in the media and in an online petition with more than 6,000 signatures.

Jennifer Blatherwick, a Coquitlam trustee, proposed a motion, that was seconded by Port Coquitlam trustee Christine Pollock, calling for an independent review.

They want an independent consultant to evaluate the relationship of the Confucius Institute and School District 43 to determine if there is any “undue influence.”

Blatherwick said she personally thinks the program is well-run but is concerned that “impartiality is in doubt” and she advocated for a review by an independent body to prevent "unfair and unfounded accusations.”

However the motion was defeated, with trustees noting the district is already subject to an independent audit each year, and provincial government scrutiny, without complaint.


Some trustees even raised concerns a review would hurt the district’s successful international education program, which currently has 1,300 students, many of them from China.

“It’s a slap in the face of people who have worked hard to develop the most successful international education program in K-12 education,” said Port Moody trustee Keith Watkins.

Board chair Kerri Palmer Isaak said subjecting the program to review smacks of anti-Chinese messaging.

“It’s not a message we want to send to the Chinese community or our Chinese students,” said Palmer Isaak, who said she has received only a few complains but none from parents.

“You’re asking me to say I know better than these parents [who enrol their children in the program]. Let these parents decide what is best for their family,” she said.

Port Coquitlam trustee Michael Thomas pointed out that the criticism of the program comes mostly from outside the district. “Most of the negative comments I’ve heard have come from people who are misinformed or under informed about our program here,” he said.


Although the international education program and the language and culture institute are separate, there are connections, in that the institute enhances SD43’s role as an international education provider.

Although students and fees are down this year due to the global pandemic, another 130 are expected to enrol next year as the federal government has recently ended travel restrictions for foreign students

As for the language and cultural program, students pay $200 each to learn Mandarin, Kung Fu, and Chinese painting, and officials say both Chinese and non-Chinese students take part, including, recently, an international student from Italy, where Confucius Institutes are also located.

It’s only been in recent years that the 11-year-old program generated controversy, including concerns about Chinese funding of trustees’ cultural trips to China, which have been on hold for two years.

Canadian documentary film maker Doris Liu said the public should continue to be wary of the language and cultural program despite the change of name and organization.


Although the Chinese government recently handed over the Confucius Institute to the responsibility of a non-governmental organization, Liu said the Chinese government is still involved because of its relationships with all businesses and institutions, including direct government oversight by Chinese Communist Party officials.

“The purpose for the Chinese government to create these two new organizations is to shift the world wide criticism of the close ties between the CI’s and the Chinese government,” said Liu, whose film In the Name of Confucius was screened in Coquitlam.

The district’s CI program has come under increasing concern since Canadian-Chinese relations deteriorated, with the extradition of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer and the daughter of the company’s founder, and the subsequent arrest and detention of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

Canada continues to maintain that it is deeply concerned by the arbitrary detention of the two Canadians in China in 2018, but China has denied that, saying the two were arrested for security reasons.

According to Gartland’s presentation Tuesday, the purpose of the program is to develop all students as global citizens, generate broad cultural understanding, celebrate language and artistic diversity, provide opportunities for the community to learn Mandarin and to support economic development within the Tri-Cities.