SUDBURY - Speakers at a March 3 town hall meeting on Laurentian University’s restructuring amid its insolvency expressed their dismay at the situation, and called upon the province to step up and provide secure funding for the school.
The event was organized by Sudbury NDP MPP Jamie West, the community group Save our Sudbury (which has been speaking out about the issues surrounding Laurentian’s restructuring) and the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA).
It was originally supposed to be a hybrid online and in-person event, but due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Greater Sudbury, it was changed to a solely virtual event. About 300 people participated via Zoom, and roughly another 100 via Facebook.
Organizers said they invited Training, Colleges and Universities Minister and Sault MPP Ross Romano to participate in the event, but he declined the invitation.
Nevertheless, Romano’s photo occupied one of the windows in the Zoom videoconference as a “Digital Effigy of Ross Romano,” as organizers sought to highlight his absence from the meeting.
As part of the event, participants were asked to write #FundLU #SaveOurSudbury on pieces of paper, and a group photo of the Zoom participants was taken. Participants were then encouraged to take a photo with their signs and post them to social media.
The event featured three panellists: University of Sudbury Indigenous studies professor Will Morin, Laurentian University economics professor David Leadbeater and 2014 Francophone social services program graduate and Compass employee Rachelle Lacoste.
The emcee was fourth-year Laurentian student Katlyn Kotila, a Sudbury native who is majoring in communication studies.
David Leadbeater said the way Romano and the provincial government have reacted to Laurentian’s insolvency and restructuring under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act is going to make things worse, not better.
He said this is a “historic turning point” in Laurentian’s history.
“I support the demand of the faculty association at Laurentian for secure funding and to stop this destructive insolvency process, which is in camera, and will not lead to negotiated solutions in which the public is involved,” Leadbeater said.
“In my view, the entire intent of the university administration working with Romano — and I think it is a collaboration behind the scenes — has been to weaken the institution, to slash programs and jobs, not to build them up.”
While Leadbeater is calling for more funding, he also referred to the situation where funds earmarked for research and scholarships were spent on university operations “malfeasance.”
“It’s very demoralizing for researchers, including myself, to hear this,” Leadbeater said. “And I want to say that if I have hope on this particular score, that the accounting firms, and the provincial government itself may find that this inquiry is going to boomerang.
“And it’s very important for that reason that some of this information from this process become public, because there is here malfeasance.
“If even a half if what has been said about the use of restricted funds becomes known, it will be an indictment of the financial controls of the province and of Laurentian itself.”
Rachelle Lacoste, who completed her degree over the course of 10 years as a mature student, emphasized for those listening in the Zoom that, as a Francophone, it was incredibly important for her to be able to study in her native tongue.
Laurentian University is a bilingual institution (Anglophone and Francophone) with a tricultural mandate (Anglophone, Francophone and Indigenous).
However, as part of the current restructuring, there has been fear among some in the community that Laurentian plans to cut Francophone programming. In fact, enrolment to a number of Francophone programs was already suspended in 2020.
Lacoste said she finds this situation frustrating.
“When we’re applying for a position as a Francophone or as a bilingual designated position as a place of employment, they are looking for you to be fluent,” she said.
“You can speak French within your home, and be able to have that conversation. But you don’t have that dialect in your field or your chosen profession to be able to be immersed in the French language in your profession. You have to have that education.”
As a current Laurentian student, Katlyn Kotila said that for her, attending LU meant that she could afford to get a post-secondary education.
“It meant that I was able to stay in my hometown, and it meant that I was able to save money and leave hopefully debt-free,” she said.
“Laurentian University is very important to me and it is very important to all of those who are in my life. I’m really grateful to see so many of you today, standing in solidarity with this important cause.”
Will Morin focused on Laurentian University’s plans to “review and restructure” its relationship with the three federated universities also operating on campus, Thorneloe University, Huntington University, and his employer, the University of Sudbury.
He speculated that as part of the restructuring process, Laurentian president Robert Haché intends to “dissolve the federation” of these institutions that came together to create the university half a century ago.
Morin said he sees that partnership which is “degrading right now on the Laurentian campus” as a reflection of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples.
“When we have ignored the treaties as a country, in the same way that Laurentian has ignored its federated partners,” Morin said, adding that he sees the situation “as colonization continuing at an academic level.”
Jamie West said he is a graduate of Laurentian University himself, and now his two sons are Laurentian students. He shared that he grew up in Sudbury housing, and is a first-generation university graduate.
The MPP said he was as shocked as everyone else in the community upon learning that Laurentian had applied for restructuring under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA), normally a process reserved for businesses.
“We need the provincial government to step up and provide Laurentian University with the funds they need to responsibly get through this difficult time,” West said.
“I don’t need a bailout. What I’m talking about is the ability for the university to get through the situation they’re in without having to have drastic cuts, so they can get through this responsibly.
“And despite this financial emergency, Premier Ford, Minister Romano, they still haven’t committed to providing the critical funding northern colleges and universities need.”
West said Ontario has the lowest provincial funding for post-secondary institutions across Canada.
“Ontario is so low that in order for our province to not be last, in terms of per-student university funding, the government would have to increase funding by 35 per cent,” he said.
In 2019, the Conservative government slashed more than $700 million from its post-secondary budget, West said.
At Laurentian, these cuts were compounded by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the “internal issues that everyone knows in the news,” and destabilized the university, West said.
“Prior to the move to the CCAA proceedings, we know that Laurentian University had efforts and a dialogue with the Conservative government,” he said. “The minister first said that he was shocked by the CCAA announcement. He recently admitted he knew for at least six months.”
West said he reached out to Romano last summer, asking for emergency funding for Laurentian and all northern universities, to help them through the pandemic.
“But instead of help, I was met with silence, and our follow-up calls were met with silence,” he said. “And all this time, the situation got worse. Our community deserves better than that.”
Prior to the virtual town hall meeting, Romano’s office issued a written statement about the funding of Laurentian and the current CCAA process.
“Operating funding grants to Laurentian University have been in the range of around $73M to $81M over the last five years,” said the statement.
“The Ministry provided grants accounted for more than 40 per cent of Laurentian’s total revenue in 2019-20, proportionally far more than other institutions. We remain focused on ensuring that Laurentian University students can continue their studies without interruption.
“The ministry has appointed a Special Advisor, Alan Harrison, to provide advice and recommendations to the Minister of Colleges and Universities regarding the financial situation at Laurentian.
“Dr. Harrison will work to develop an independent analysis, as well as recommendations for how the government can proceed in supporting long-term financial sustainability for Laurentian. The scope of the Special Advisor’s mandate will extend beyond financial analysis, and include an examination of other factors underlying the situation at Laurentian.”
You can watch the town hall discussion below: