The question of who knew what and when they knew it regarding Laurentian’s insolvency continues to be asked of politicians.
On May 25, Laurentian president Robert Haché faced questioning by MPs in a hearing of the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women.
In response to questioning from the NDP’s Charlie Angus, Haché said in the months leading up to the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) filing, the university had conversations with both the provincial and federal governments.
The topic of Laurentian University came up again June 2 at the House of Commons Official Languages Committee.
Haché is also supposed to be a witness at the Official Languages Committee this afternoon starting at 3:30 p.m.
At the June 2 hearing, Angus, who’s the MP for Timmins-James Bay, asked Mélanie Joly, minister of Economic Development and Official Languages, what she knew about Laurentian’s economic crisis.
He referred to meetings between Laurentian and the two Liberal MPs in the Greater Sudbury area, Sudbury MP Paul Lefebvre and Nickel Belt MP Marc Serré, in the months leading up to Laurentian declaring its insolvency Feb. 1.
These meetings are recorded on the lobbyist registry.
“Mr. Haché said there were multiple meetings with the federal government, but you said you didn’t meet with them,” said Angus to Joly.
“So did Mr. Lefebvre let you know that they were facing bankruptcy, because Mr. Hache told us they were in crisis, and after the meetings, they had to make the decision to go into bankruptcy. So who told you that they were in crisis, or were you not told?”
Joly answered: “I was not told, and if I had been told, I would have clearly called the province to find a solution.”
She went on to say that Lefebvre contacted her office in January about the local MPs’ December meeting with Laurentian, but there was no indication at the time the university was planning to file under the CCAA.
Angus said in a press release it is “hard to imagine that University president Haché would have withheld the drastic nature of the choice he was facing from the local MPs.
“If that is the case, why didn’t they bring in the minister to help find a solution? The people of the north deserve answers about how this catastrophe was allowed to happen.”
Lefebvre said Laurentian's insolvency and filing under the CCAA came as a surprise, not only to the community but also to the federal government.
“Neither the seriousness of the financial situation nor the possibility of appealing to the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act was raised by Laurentian University or the province to the attention of our office prior to the announcement of Feb. 1, 2021,” Lefebvre said in a news release.
Marc Serré, the MP for Nickel Belt, echoed these comments.
“No one in the community, including myself, believed that the university would go before the courts,” he said, speaking at the June 2 committee hearing.
“We’re hearing from the opposition that we were aware. That is not true. This is strictly politics on the backs of university professors, on the backs of students.”
Joly told the committee she found out about Laurentian’s insolvency at the same time as everybody else.
But knowing about Laurentian’s financial problems, she asked the provincial government to discuss the future of Laurentian and French-language post-secondary education as of last January.
“Last January, following a discussion with Laurentian University, MP Paul Lefebvre informed our office of the pressures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on the establishment's programming, as was the case for many post-secondary institutions across the country,” Joly told the committee.
“Subsequently, we initiated a discussion with the Province of Ontario, since they are ultimately responsible for the good management of post-secondary institutions in the territory, to offer our assistance. We haven't had any feedback."
Laurentian University announced Feb. 1 it is insolvent, and had filed for creditor protection under the Companies Creditors’ Arrangement Act (CCAA), a move that’s unprecedented in the post-secondary sector.
The university, which had $321.8 million in liabilities as of April 30, 2020, said it would have run out of cash to meet its payroll obligations by the end of February if it hadn’t secured a $25 million debtor-in-possession (DIP) loan through the insolvency process.
Under the auspices of the CCAA, Laurentian is undergoing court-supervised restructuring. That includes massive cuts to its programs and employees, which were made public April 12, as well as the termination of the federation agreement.
Laurentian is now in phase 2 of its restructuring, which will last until Aug. 31.
Phase 2 will include a review of its assets and real estate holdings to see if they can be monetized, as well as coming up with a plan to deal with its creditors.
Those creditors include Laurentian’s terminated employees, who have to join the creditors’ pool in an attempt to receive their severance.