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TORONTO (Reuters) - 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.
The Confucius Institute headquarters in Beijing, called Hanban, did not respond to a request for comment.
China's Foreign Ministry, which has defended Confucius Institute programs as not posing a threat to academic freedom or integrity, said on Thursday it was unaware of the canceled partnership in Toronto.
"Confucius Institutes help foreigners learn Chinese, learn about Chinese culture, and facilitate mutual understanding and friendship. This is in line with other countries' interest in China and the trend of China going global," ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news briefing.
Ties 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 was 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."
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, in Beijing as part of a Canadian trade mission, told Reuters on Thursday the issue had not been raised in discussions with Chinese counterparts. She added that she hoped it would not damage ties.
"I hope that people here understand and we have been clarifying that this is a decision made by a school board," she said. "There are other Confucius Institutes in other parts of the country."
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.
But opposition from those protesting the Chinese government role stopped the partnership before it started, although some trustees and teachers argued the program was a good way to offer enrichment opportunities to elementary school students.
Mandarin classes are popular in some parts of Canada among those who see the language as a path to an international career.
Chinese is Canada's third most widely spoken language, after English and French, and about 10.5 percent of newcomers between 2006 and 2011 were from China, according to Statistics Canada.
Pennsylvania State University this month 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 cut ties in September.
While some Canadian universities have partnered with the Confucius Institute to offer courses in Chinese language and culture for credit, Burton said the institute's high-profile rejection makes future partnerships 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."
Additional reporting by Megha Rajagopalan in BEIJING; Editing by Amran Abocar, Ken Wills and Clarence Fernandez