With Robert Haché appearing as a witness, a discussion of why the federal government didn’t step in and save Laurentian University from insolvency took place June 3 at the House of Commons Official Languages Committee.
It was the second day in a row in which this issue was discussed at this particular Commons committee, and also the second week in a row that Haché, the president of Laurentian, has faced questions from MPs.
He also appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women May 25, answering questions on Laurentian’s now-discontinued midwifery program as well as the university’s insolvency.
Haché was one of the witnesses invited to take part in the June 3 discussion at the House of Commons Official Languages Committee on federal support for French-language or bilingual post-secondary institutions in a minority setting.
More than two dozen French-language programs were cut at Laurentian — which is a bilingual university — in April as part of the insolvent university’s court-supervised restructuring efforts under the Companies’ Creditors Protection Act (CCAA).
Sudbury MP Paul Lefebvre and Nickel Belt MP Marc Serré, both Liberals, had met with Haché in December about LU’s financial problems, although they both contend they had no idea that the university was insolvent and planning to file under the CCAA.
The NDP’s Charlie Angus wanted to know if there was a “specific ask” of the federal government made by Laurentian in the late-December meeting with the local MPs.
“At the end of December, we were very transparent in the magnitude of the challenges we had, and without making a specific ask, highlighting the magnitude of the challenge, the gap that we had at Laurentian in looking for any way in which the federal government might be able to help us to bridge that gap,” Haché replied.
Angus also brought up statements made by Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages Mélanie Joly at the Official Languages Committee hearing June 2.
Joly said that despite LU’s meetings with the local MPs, she was not told about the full severity of Laurentian’s financial problems, “and if I had been told, I would have clearly called the province to find a solution.”
“This is an absolute crisis that happened,” said Angus, who’s the MP for Timmins-James Bay.
“What surprises me is that Mme. Joly, the Minister of FedNor as well as official languages, said if she had been told, she would have intervened and worked directly with the province,” said Angus.
“Do you think it would have been better to go directly to Mme. Joly than to local MPs? Because she said she would have acted.”
Haché said Laurentian did reach out “more broadly” as well as work with the local MPs, who are an important touchpoint.
“Hindsight can be 20-20,” he said. “And if we had been more aggressive, more successful, perhaps there might have been a change, perhaps not.”
“I’m just surprised when she said she (Minister Joly) would have helped, yet she was not told. You had met with the local MPs,” Angus said.
“You said you were transparent about it, that you explained the magnitude of the crisis to them, that that was not passed on to the minister, who is the minister of FedNor for our entire region. I just think that this was a really tragic and lost opportunity.”
Lefebvre said after he and Serré met with Haché in December, he suggested a number of potential federal funding sources.
He said he told Haché that the federal government could provide support for official languages and Indigenous languages programs.
While these programs are delivered by the province and funded by federal transfer payments, Lefebvre said he would work with Joly’s office to “move this forward.” Haché confirmed that indeed, this is what happened at the meeting.
Both Lefebvre and Serré pointed out that the funding of post-secondary education is a provincial responsibility.
“It seems some members don’t understand the difference between certain levels of government,” Lefebvre quipped.
Although Angus has been outspoken on LU’s insolvency and restructuring, Serré pointed out that the lobbyists’ registry shows he has never met with Laurentian University officials.
Haché confirmed he’s “never had the pleasure” of meeting with Angus, although he can’t speak for his predecessors.
“So they did not have a meeting,” Serré said. “Let that show on the record.”
With the Commons committee meeting ostensibly focusing on bilingual and French-language post-secondary institutions, in his opening remarks Haché defended LU’s recent cuts to French-language programming.
“Laurentian continues to offer 28 consolidated undergraduate programs and five graduate programs in French, which have strong enrolment, meeting the needs of our students,” said Haché.
“In all, maintaining the focus on in-demand programs, fewer than 10 per cent of all students enrolled in French-language programs are being directly affected by these changes
“These offerings keep us amongst the most comprehensive institutions with respect to our balance of French and English-language programs.
“Further, our Francophone students continue to have a variety of French-language courses to choose from in their programs.”
Haché added that the programs that were cut had low enrolment, sometimes just two or three students. “We have kept the programs in which students are interested,” he said.
Lefebvre, though, said “cuts to the French-language programs have cut out the soul of Laurentian University.”