The Ontario Legislature voted Dec. 9 in favour of taking the rare step of issuing a speaker’s warrant to compel the university to provide the province with privileged documents it has been refusing to provide.
Refusal to abide by the warrant opens those named by it to punishment, including imprisonment, Nickel Belt MPP France Gélinas said today.
The warrant, directed at Laurentian president Robert Haché and board of governors president Claude Lacroix, would require the documents in question be produced no later than Feb. 1, 2022.
The province’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts passed a motion Dec. 8, recommending that the speaker of the house issue the warrant.
Among the documents under the warrant are board of governors public and in-camera materials going back to 2010, complete email records for Laurentian officials, including former president Dominic Giroux and current president Haché, email communications with Laurentian auditors KPMG and Laurentian’s lawyers, and more.
Laurentian University declared it is insolvent last winter, and has been undergoing court-supervised restructuring under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA).
The university has refused to provide certain documents to both the Standing Committee on Public Accounts and Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk.
Lysyk was tasked by the Public Accounts committee last April with conducting a value-for-money audit of Laurentian.
Laurentian and Lysyk’s office squared off before the courts earlier this week, with counsel for the AG saying she is entitled to view these documents under the Ontario Auditor General Act, while Laurentian saying this is not the case.
MPPs said Thursday the Ontario Legislature’s actions and what is happening in the courts are separate matters.
“The Superior Court indisputably has authority over those matters within its jurisdiction,” said government house leader Paul Calandra, the PC MPP for Markham-Stouffville.
“And similarly, parliament exercising its judicial function, as the highest court in the province has the authority, the exclusive authority, over matters within its jurisdiction.
“Like I said, Mr. Speaker, this is not about any other proceeding. This is about the rights of this place, our ancient parliamentary rights, 1,000 years old or more, as old as our institutions and our system of government itself.”
Calandra said the step of issuing a speaker’s warrant is “rare indeed” but “very necessary.”
The House Leader had a message for Laurentian president Robert Haché, board of governors president Claude Lacroix, and the university’s legal counsel.
“I say dissuade yourselves immediately of any impression that this parliament will surrender to your tactics,” he said. “Your utter disrespect for parliament and the people of Ontario is shameful, and we will not let it stand.”
While Laurentian has until Feb. 1 to produce the desired documents, Calandra said LU should not confuse the reasonableness of this timeline with an opportunity to evade the order.
“Mr. Speaker, you know this house has many tools still at its disposal, including significant punitive measures, which we will not hesitate to use if the order of this house is treated with the same disregard that other orders of the Public Accounts Committee have been,” Caladra said.
Nickel Belt NDP MPP France Gélinas said it was with a “heavy heart” that she asked her fellow MPPs to vote in favour of the motion to approve the warrant.
She said the Public Accounts committee, of which she is a member, “tried really hard” to work with Laurentian on the matter, but it was “to no avail,” and they were left with “no choice” but to take this action.
Gélinas brought with her to the Legislature a speaker’s warrant issued in 2012, related to Ontario’s air ambulance service.
“I thought in my career that would be the only one that I would ever see,” said the local MPP.
“I want to let you know what those warrant looks like, if most of us have never seen one, and I hope we never see one again.
“It said things like you are required to produce to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts all documents, records or things related to the committee's consideration.
“If you disobey this warrant, you may be subject to punishment, including imprisonment. That we have to go to such drastic measures does not make me happy. But we have to do this.”
Sudbury NDP MPP Jamie West, who is a Laurentian alumnus, said his alma mater has “thumbed its nose” at the Legislature. He said he believes every other tool at the body’s disposal has been exhausted.
He said he’s concerned about Laurentian’s behaviour setting a precedent for future audits. “Rest assured, Speaker, other people will be watching too,” West said.
Public Accounts committee member Michael Parsa, the PC MPP for Aurora—Oak Ridges—Richmond Hill, took his fellow politicians through the committee’s dealings with Laurentian over the past few months.
He said the Public Accounts committee tasked Lysyk April 28 with the value-for-money audit of Laurentian, but by Oct. 6, it decided if there was “any hope” of the audit being completed, the committee had to directly demand LU’s documents.
Due to Laurentian’s concerns about confidentiality, the Public Accounts committee decided it would not publicly disclose the requested documents.
Laurentian at one point suggested the dispute with the Public Accounts committee be mediated by Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz, the judge that has heard most matters related to LU’s insolvency.
Parsa said this is a “clearly unacceptable suggestion for a parliamentary committee.”
On Nov. 30, Laurentian wrote to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, proposing a resolution.
However, that resolution involved delivering materials, even those subject to solicitor-client privilege, up to March 2020, as well as certain materials after March 2020, but nothing subject to the CCAA process.
Laurentian would also require that this be a “full and final resolution of the committee’s request” and would require “that the committee not continue to seek further disclosure.”
It would also require “that this committee and this parliament submit to a settlement agreement” outlined in a court order from Chief Justice Morawetz.
“Speaker, I think you're aware that parliament is the highest court in the land,” Parsa said. “Parliament has the exclusive authority over itself, and any such agreement would be unprecedented in the history of our system of government.”
Parsa said members of the Public Accounts committee also do not think the disclosure of documents proposed above by Laurentian would be sufficient.
Laurentian University president Robert Haché and board of governors president Claude Lacroix also appeared in camera before the Public Accounts committee Dec. 1, but Parsa said the committee was “wholly unsatisfied” with their presentation.
In the wake of the Public Accounts committee recommending the speaker’s warrant on Wednesday, Laurentian University issued a written statement. The university has not yet responded to the issuing of the speaker’s warrant on Thursday.
Laurentian called the request for the speaker’s warrant “an attempt to pre-empt and interfere with an existing court process.”
The university also said it is “gravely concerned that compliance with a warrant would put it, and its officers, directors, and employees, in contempt of a court order.”
Laurentian said it delivered a letter on the matter to the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Premier Doug Ford, opposition leaders Andrea Horwath and Steven Del Duca, and others, Dec. 8. You can read that letter here.
The university said in its statement that a court hearing regarding the dispute between the Auditor General of Ontario and Laurentian was held Dec. 6, and Chief Justice Morawetz said he would issue a decision shortly.
“Laurentian University had expected that the Auditor General and Standing Committee would allow the court’s determination to be known before deciding whether to take any further steps,” said Laurentian’s statement.
“Instead, the Committee’s request seeks to pre-empt and interfere with that pending determination.”
Laurentian said that further, this step “creates chaos and confusion when the University must focus on supporting its students and successfully emerging from the CCAA process.”
The statement said that the Standing Committee’s motion seeks the disclosure of documents and information that the Court has ordered to remain confidential, as well as documents subject to the constitutionally-protected privilege of Laurentian University and many third parties.
“As such, complying with a Speaker’s warrant would mean violating a court order,” said Laurentian’s statement.
The university said it has “authorized and encouraged all staff to participate in interviews with the Auditor General of Ontario,” and granted “direct access to our entire financial database, enrollment system, as well as extensive non-privileged documentation.”
Laurentian concluded by saying it has “co-operated with the standing committee’s inquiry. The university has produced, and continues to produce, substantial documents and information to the standing committee directly."