On April 12, when Laurentian University announced that it was closing 28 French-language programs, the Coalition nord-ont. pour une université de langue française began to rally their troops.
It is time, said Coalition spokesperson Denis Constantineau, for a standalone university “by, for and with Francophones in the Mid-North.”
That university would be situated at the University of Sudbury, which announced in March in the lead-up to the Laurentian cuts (and LU’s decision to cut ties with the federated universities on its campus) that it plans to become a francophone university.
Now, the Coalition is calling on the Ontario government, specifically Caroline Mulroney, Minister for Francophone Affairs, to restore French-language programming, “as it existed before April 12,” to the University of Sudbury in time for the start of the September 2021 academic year.
More specifically, the deadline of June 24. Not only Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, but what a release from the coalition says is the last date that ensures “the Université de Sudbury’s ability to plan for next fall's academic year.”
As well, the group says it recommends that the province turn responsibilities for running the French-language university education in this area of the province to Université de Sudbury and establish an implementation commission to help shape its future.
It isn’t that they want to close Laurentian, Constantineau told Sudbury.com.
“We're not looking for Laurentian University to disappear off the map,” he said. “We think Sudbury and the north needs a strong English language university. We also need a strong French language University standing alongside it. We also need a strong indigenous University.”
The University of Sudbury, though federated no longer, already has a new leader in place. Taking over for Father John Meehan, who joined as president in 2019, is Serge Miville, who also hopes to open the doors to the University of Sudbury’s new francophone university in September.
The province needs to step up and solve the problems at Laurentian, said Constantineau, “But, in terms of a bilingual institution, Laurentian has lost the faith and the trust of the community and we want to see a standalone institution.”
To put it simply, said Constantineau, “Laurentian University doesn’t think in French. It thinks in English, then translates.”
This is especially important when it comes to training those who will work in French, says Constantineau. In another release dated June 21, the coalition denounces the Ontario government's decision to provide funding to Laurentian University.
Queen's Park announced on June 17 that it will invest $12.5 million over the next four years to “recruit, train and retain more French teachers.”
“The Coalition believes that the provincial government must stop discussing with Laurentian issues that affect the future of French-language university education in Ontario’s Mid-North region,” said Constantineau in this release. “Instead, it should talk to the institution that is committed to working for and with the francophone community, namely the Université de Sudbury.”
He notes even the smallest aspects of that can have an effect on the culture of a French language program.
“The Alphonse Raymond building, once home to the majority of French-language programs, has all of its signs in English first,” he said.
When asked if a standalone Francophone university is feasible, given Laurentian’s reasons for cutting the programs, i.e. that there was low enrollment, Constantineau was pleased to counter that assumption as well.
“Dr. Haché himself, before the parliamentary committee (earlier this month) said ‘We didn’t close the programs, the students closed the programs’,” said Constatineau. It’s a statement he calls “disingenuous.”
He says that while there once were 18 professors in the French department, there were fewer than five when the program was closed.
Not because there were no jobs, says Constantineau, but because they were not filled. “Laurentian stopped replacing professors. They didn't invest in the programs, they didn't promote the programs.”
Additionally, the aspects of international recruitment that many post-secondary institutions value for the benefits to long-term viability were not pursued in French.
“Laurentian didn't start recruiting international students from Francophone countries until years after they did it on the English side,” said Constantineau.
“They stopped investing in the programs, the program died a slow and painful death. Then he turns around and states, ‘But there's only two students registered in that program.’ That's really disingenuous.”
Constantineau likens it to retail. “It's like having a grocery store where you only sell chicken and then you close it because you say, “Well, we're just not selling enough beef.”
Though the provincial government has answered calls for aid with replies that they are limited by the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) Laurentian is undertaking, Constantineau says not only will that process take too long, “upwards of five years,” he also feels their inaction is disingenuous as well.
In a June 11 release describing the intentions of the Coalition, Constantineau points to other steps Queen’s Park has taken.
“Your government has said that its hands are tied right now because the Laurentian University case is before the court,” Constantineau states.
“However, it has stepped in to protect the midwifery program by providing funding to two English-language institutions that have taken it over (Ryerson and MacMaster universities). You also granted independence to the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. So we are convinced that there are solutions if the will is there.”
He told Sudbury.com, “We're asking them to display the same ingenuity when it comes to the French language.”
To Constantineau, it is about language, culture, and what a post-secondary institution should be.
“A university isn't a production facility for employees, he said. “It's an institution of higher learning. It's got a role way beyond preparing somebody for the job market.
He says the francophone community around the country relied heavily on the research done at the former University of Sudbury. We relied on the students, these people that contributed to research projects,” said Constantineau.
“They sat on our boards, they really invested in the community. And if that disappears, the community will lose a great deal.”