Université de Montréal announced today that it will keep the money it received in 2016 from two Chinese businessmen to fund scholarships for students in the Faculty of Law and to erect a statue of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, but will reallocate the funds to other projects aimed at contributing to the development of knowledge on democracy around the world and to supporting student activities, such as international mobility projects.
In recent weeks, media reports have raised numerous questions about the real source of the Chinese donation, as well as of the Chinese donation given at the same time to the Montreal-based Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation to help it organize conferences. According to unnamed sources linked to the Canadian intelligence services who were quoted in the media, these donations were financed by the Chinese regime in an attempt to politically interfere with workings of the Canadian government. Canadian intelligence services have never confirmed or denied these allegations and cannot confirm or deny them on behalf of the University.
Given the uncertainty created by these allegations, Université de Montréal has analyzed the situation in light of the available information and evaluated all the avenues at its disposal to address the issue of what to do with the funds. In the end, without being able in any way to confirm the allegations circulating in the media about the real source of the funds, the University intends to use the remaining sums from the donation and reallocate them to other projects.
"The donation we received in 2016 was not unusual," said UdeM rector Daniel Jutras. "Back then, universities, corporations and governments were busy signing agreements and establshing missions with China in order to strengthen ties between our two countries. UdeM’s projects were carried out in a spirit of openness and sincere collaboration on our part. The way we look at some of these projects today is clearly different, and if Université de Montréal was somehow led up the garden path to signing its agreement with the Chinese, an assumption that remains unverifiable, it was in spite of itself. That said, the University has never abdicated its freedom to act."
In analyzing the situation, the University noted how very difficult it would be to refund the money, assuming that it could be done at all. In particular, it became clear that repaying the sums it received could run contrary to Canada’s Income Tax Act. In addition, the objectives laid out in the original grant agreement have become less relevant and more difficult to achieve in the current context, in part because of a lack of qualified candidates to receive the scholarships that were set up thanks to the donation. By reallocating the sums still available in the Bin Zhang-Niu Gensheng Scholarship Fund, Université de Montréal is able to continue its research and teaching activities on themes related to international action and democracy.
"From our point of view, the objectives of the donation agreement were part of a broader perspective based on openness to the world and better mutual understanding between cultures," said Jutras. "Université de Montréal has an exceptional reputation in research and teaching in international relations and democratic governance, and in supporting peace and security in the world. The decision we’re announcing today is consistent with the values of integrity and expertise that remain at the heart of our research activities and programs."
The donation in detailIt was in 2014 that Université de Montréal, through its then vice-rector of international affairs, Guy Lefebvre, agreed with a Chinese businessman, Zhang Bin, to set up a scholarship fund at the Faculty of Law and to erect a statue honouring former Canadian prime minister and UdeM law professor Pierre Elliott Trudeau, one of the first Western heads of state to establish true diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. This philanthropic gesture mirrored a gift made by the same donor to the University of Toronto in 2013: $800,000 for scholarships in the Faculty of Medicine and for a statue in honour of Norman Bethune, an illustrious alumnus of that faculty revered in China for his work there in the late 1930s.
As Mr. Lefebvre’s remembers it, it was UdeM that approached the Trudeau Foundation, after reaching an initial agreement with the donor, to obtain permission to use Mr. Trudeau’s name and image. A second donor, Niu Gensheng, was added and discussions continued with the Foundation and the donors to reach the agreement which was signed in June 2016. The fiscal aspects of the donation were in accordance with the law: the University issued tax receipts to the legal entity that made the payments covered by the agreement.
Under this agreement, the University was to receive $800,000: $750,000 for the creation of a scholarship fund and $50,000 for a statue of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. In the end, only $550,000 was received; a final installment of $250,000, due in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, was never paid.
In 2018, four scholarships of $10,000 each were awarded to doctoral students at the Faculty of Law. No further scholarships have been awarded since then, as the number of qualified candidates has been reduced and as the COVID-19 pandemic brought a halt to international mobility. As for the statue, preliminary design work was started but it soon became apparent that the funds set aside for this purpose were insufficient to complete the work.
In addition to the donation to Université de Montréal, the agreement provided for a donation of $200,000 to the Trudeau Foundation towards organizing conferences and public activities at UdeM. The Foundation approached the University in 2019 to hand over these sums, but no further steps were taken.
Lastly, Mr. Lefebvre, now retired, announced to the Chinese partners with whom he maintained research links that he was definitively cutting ties. He modified his profile page on the University’s website accordingly.
The balance of the fund now stands at $506,791.89.