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Opinion: Creating a standalone French university could be good for Laurentian

Columnist Réjean Grenier argues that Laurentian University hasn’t lived up to its tricultural mandate, and creating a new French-only institution could be a boon for the school and for students who want to learn in French
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Laurentian University. (File)

By now, everyone knows that Laurentian University in Sudbury is in deep financial trouble. On Feb. 1, the university filed for creditor protection after years of operating deficits. The court process under the Companies’ Creditor Arrangement Act is ongoing. As part of that process, the university has prepared a restructuring plan and was expected to present it to its senate on April 6.

A few weeks ago, Earlton businessman Pierre Bélanger and I wrote a letter to Laurentian president Robert Haché inviting him and the board of governors to re-examine the institution’s bilingual mandate. As proud alumni of Laurentian, our goal was twofold: allow the university to review a mandate that it often claims is a burden and to satisfy a long-standing wish by the French community to have its own university.

Let me explain. First, the burden. It is now obvious that Laurentian is heavily burdened. I am not sure that the poor French education it provides is a big part of that financial weight, but I am certain that having to manage its tri-cultural mandate – English, French, Indigenous – is proving difficult for the administrators. Heck, given what has now been divulged, I am not even sure they could manage a unilingual institution. But that’s another story. 

One thing that is clear however is that Laurentian needs to be streamlined. But why get rid of its French component, you may ask. Here we need a bit of history.

Historical perspective

When Laurentian was created in 1960, it was the second university in Northern Ontario. L’Université de Sudbury already existed since 1956 as a French institution. For multiple reasons, it merged with two other religious institutions, Thorneloe and Huntington, to form Laurentian. 

At the time, the bilingual nature of Laurentian was seen as an advancement in French post-secondary education.

Remember that in 1960 Canada was not even a bilingual country and Ontario’s French education stopped at Grade 8. How things have changed. 

In 1968, Parliament adopted the Official Languages Act making the country bilingual. Between 1970 and 1980, Ontario expanded French education to the secondary level. In the 1990s, it created French school boards and French colleges. 

Now, it is time to bring French university education to the 21st century by creating a university governed by the French community.

This evolution of French education could benefit all of Ontario by graduating French students who will then go on to create wealth in the future knowledge economy.

How to do it

The creation of Collège Boréal in Sudbury and Cité collégiale in Ottawa has shown us the only way to create a successful French university is to transfer all French programs, courses and teachers from the bilingual institutions to the new French ones. Period. 

The model is clear. And let’s face it, it has not hurt the North’s English colleges – Cambrian, Canadore, Northern – which have been doing quite well since losing their bilingual status.

Back to Laurentian

The lesson of history is what motivated Pierre Bélanger and I to open the dialogue about Laurentian’s bilingual status. We believe it may allow the university administrators to be more focused on providing top-notch English education while also allowing Ontario to complete its French education endeavours. 

This does not mean the French presence would be gutted from the Laurentian campus. A new French university could probably be housed on the campus since cutting French programs would liberate space. The on-campus Université de Sudbury has already proposed eliminating its religious status, becoming French-only and recuperating Laurentian’s French-language programs.

I just don’t understand why Laurentian’s president and board of governors don’t even want to examine whether this could help their institution while answering a long-standing need in Ontario. Maybe they just like living in the Sixties.

Réjean Grenier is an editorial writer and columnist at Le Voyageur and Francopresse.ca. He is also a Laurentian University alumnus.