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Montreal university to keep donation linked to Chinese government influence effort

MONTREAL — A Montreal university says it will keep a donation that has been linked to an alleged plot by the Chinese government to influence Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but it will now use the money to promote democracy.

MONTREAL — A Montreal university says it will keep a donation that has been linked to an alleged plot by the Chinese government to influence Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but it will now use the money to promote democracy.

The Université de Montréal said Thursday that it has not been able to confirm the allegations, made by an unnamed national security source in The Globe and Mail, that the donation was part of a political interference operation.

Repaying the money would be difficult and would require the university to convince a Quebec Superior Court judge to void the gift "on the basis of some form of defect of consent or impersonation," said Daniel Jutras, the university's rector.

"We really don't have any evidence of that that we could actually bring forward in the court, so I think that avenue is fraught with significant likelihood of failure," Jutras said in an interview Thursday.

In 2016, two Chinese businessmen — Zhang Bin and Niu Gensheng — pledged $800,000 to the university. 

Most of the money was supposed to be used to create a scholarship fund to help Quebec students study in China and Chinese students study in Quebec, while $50,000 was intended to build a statue of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who studied and taught law at the university before entering politics.

However, media reports have alleged that Zhang was instructed by a Chinese diplomat to make a $1-million donation in honour of Trudeau in an effort to influence his son, the current prime minister. As part of the donation, the businessmen pledged an additional $200,000 to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, which calls itself an independent, non-partisan scholarship organization established in memory of the former prime minister.

The university maintains there was nothing unusual about the donation it received and that it came during a different time in Canada-China relations.

"The gift was a very normal gift back in 2016. A couple years before we received that gift, the University of Toronto received the same amount of money, $800,000, from the same people," Jutras said. At the time, he said, universities, corporations and governments were all attempting to strengthen ties with China.

The university said only $550,000 of the promised donation was ever received, and only four scholarships, each worth $10,000, were awarded.

Jutras said few students qualified for the scholarship, which had strict conditions, and there were few applications. In 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the type of exchanges funded by the scholarship became impossible. Since the re-establishment of international travel, Jutras said, there has been little interest among the university's students to engage in research in China.

While preliminary design work was done for the statue, it was never created.

Almost $507,000 remains in the scholarship fund, the university said. Jutras said the university hasn't decided exactly how it will spend the money.

"The idea is to reallocate it to support research projects, student scholarships, bursaries, mobility of students and professors under this broad theme of democracy and international relations," he said, adding that specifics will be decided in the coming weeks and months. He said the university has attempted to contact the two donors to inform them of the change of plans but hasn't heard back. 

The related pledge of $200,000 to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation led that organization’s president and board of directors to resign last week. The foundation, which was launched with an endowment from the federal government, has also asked the federal auditor general's office to investigate the donation.

The university said the Trudeau Foundation became involved after Guy Lefebvre, then vice-rector of international affairs, asked the foundation for the right to use Trudeau’s name and image.

That $200,000 was supposed to be used for conferences and public activities at the university — which the university says never took place. The foundation has said it only received $140,000 of its donation and it wants to return the money.

The university said Lefebvre, who negotiated the donation and has since retired, has cut all ties with Chinese institutions. Lefebvre had been the co-director of the Sino-Canadian Research Centre at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing and in July 2022 was awarded the Wenlan Scholar Chair Professorship in International Law at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in China.

"From my point of view, he was acting as a scholar trying to build connections with China at a time when every university in Canada was seeking to build ties with China," Jutras said, adding that he sees no flaws in Lefebvre's negotiations with the two donors.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 20, 2023. 

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press