Mr. Chair and members of the committee, it's an honour to be able to be part of this conversation around an issue that I think is of great importance to our country, at a time of increasing global instability.
Very briefly, my particular interest in this subject doesn't just stem from my current position as Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development in New Brunswick but from having worked as a democracy activist in multiple countries around the world—coincidentally, Cambodia and Nepal. I happened to be living in those countries when China took an interest in those countries and effectively, economically—and in both cases functionally and politically—colonized them over a very brief period of time in the last decade—the decade before last.
When we look at any discussion around China, I think it's important that we look at the reality of the horrifying headlines we've seen here in our own country around residential schools in recent weeks. As we like to say about past sins that our country has experienced, “never forget and never again”. In this case, we appear to be doing just that in both cases with China, and not only that but amplifying it as a massive system of residential schools and internment camps—functionally, concentration camps—is rolled out across the hinterland of one of our largest trading partners.
Rather than speaking up against this vociferously and making that the centrepiece of our foreign policy, as you'd expect of a country that led the fight against fascism and for democracy in the Second World War and that has been a voice with its soft power in the intervening decades, instead we are amplifying that message. I'm speaking here specifically not just about our general foreign policy failures but about the experience of the Confucius Institute, a Chinese Communist Party branch operation that's operating inside public schools and universities in different places across Canada.
Here in New Brunswick, the Confucius Institute gained a foothold back in the late 2000s and expanded to reach many thousands of New Brunswick students at both the primary and high school levels over the course of several years. Programs supposedly focusing on culture and language in many cases included overt political propaganda. This included having elementary school students drawing maps of China that would erase the border with Taiwan. This included the denial of the reality of Tiananmen Square, and it included the disciplining of students who raised questions around China's abysmal human rights records. These are things that are happening in Canadian schools.
Knowing this, and with the background that I had, when I became minister at the end of 2018, I resolved to try to end the Confucius Institute's programs in New Brunswick, which resulted in an interesting series of lobbying efforts. The first one was with the former premier of New Brunswick, Shawn Graham, working as a lobbyist for Chinese interests, attempting to get me to maintain my relationships with the Confucius Institutes operating here in the province and New Brunswick curriculum-operated schools operating in China.
Then, when that didn't work, somewhat surprisingly there was the visit of the consul general of China to my office without any of the normal diplomatic protocols that I'm well aware of from my past life in international politics and diplomacy. He attempted to pressure me into reversing a government decision, including threats of economic retaliation, turning this into a two-nation issue rather than a question of a disagreement over schooling. That, in turn, led to members of the Chinese diaspora reaching out to me, expressing grave concern over the fact that their country of birth was reaching its tentacles into not just Canadian politics but our education system, which you would hope would be the place where what we would have as Canadian values....
No matter how much we may argue around parliamentary and legislative tables across the country about what that would mean, it certainly does not include concentration camps, mass murder and any of the myriad crimes routinely committed by the People's Republic of China and its various apologists supporting it around the world.
I'm looking forward to answering any questions that I can, specifically about the Confucius Institute's operations here in New Brunswick, the reaction to the decision to cancel the programs and anything else related to this subject.
Thank you so much for the time to be able to appear before this committee.