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More Canadian universities vow to steer clear of Huawei

Several top Canadian universities said Thursday they have decided not to enter new research agreements with Huawei, after the University of Waterloo told the Star this week it would end all existing partnerships with the Chinese telecommunications giant.

Amid increased scrutiny of Canadian university partnerships, and as a national conversation continues about Beijing’s influence efforts in this country, the move by Waterloo was seen as a potentially precedent-setting step.

The University of Toronto was among the schools to make a statement Thursday.

“In response to concerns about research security, the University of Toronto decided in April to stop any new research engagements with Huawei,” said a statement from Leah Cowen, vice-president, research and innovation and strategic initiatives.

“This includes new agreements, new projects within existing agreements, renewals and funded extensions. We also hired a Director of Research Security in September 2022, and are in the process of establishing a research security office.”

Similarly, McGill University confirmed it has decided against pursuing further deals with Huawei.

“This past winter, McGill made an important decision to not develop further contracts with Huawei,” a McGill spokesperson said. “McGill University takes this matter very seriously. Martha Crago, McGill’s Vice-Principal Research and Innovation, helped set up the first universities working group close to five years ago with the Government of Canada on this topic in 2018.”

The Chinese company has repeatedly defended its integrity and cybersecurity practices as a private multinational, but has admitted it is subject to Chinese laws compelling companies to assist in national intelligence work.

The University of Saskatchewan, meanwhile, said it had no current research agreements with Huawei.

The three schools, along with the University of Waterloo, are members of the U15 Canada association of leading research universities. The Star contacted all 15 schools on Thursday, but had yet to receive statements from the majority of members.

The University of Calgary, another member, said in an email the school “currently has three active research partnerships with Huawei, established in prior years, with each carrying end-dates in 2023 or 2024.” The university did not comment on whether it will pursue new partnerships with Huawei.

Additionally, Carleton University, which previously announced a research collaboration with Huawei, told The Logic that it now “has no active agreements” with the company.

While Canada has banned Huawei from its next-generation 5G wireless networks, the government has so far left it to universities to decide whether to collaborate with the company.

Chad Gaffield, chief executive officer of the U15 group, said it was heartening to see research institutions “making decisions on appropriate actions and making judgments on what’s best … for the sake of the Canadian research ecosystem.”

He said a shift to prioritizing national security concerns related to research with international entities has occurred in Canada only within the past few years, and most universities are in the process of hammering out their approaches.

“Our hope is that we will move to a place where approaches to safeguarding research security are routinized just the way that over the years, we have routinized best practices for research with human subjects and animal care” in laboratory environments.

In February, Canadian authorities tightened their policies on bankrolling research with foreign entities, announcing that Canada’s federal research granting councils would reject funding for projects with institutions that had ties to foreign governments posing a risk to national security.

That announcement did not mention specific countries, but security officials have warned for years that China and Russia are among foreign states with interest in Canada’s advanced technologies.

Huawei Canada has not responded to requests from the Star for comment.

Joanna Chiu is a B.C.-based staff reporter for the Star. She covers global and national affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @joannachiu


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