In a more than five-hour-long debate Wednesday evening, MPs of all stripes spoke about the issues brought up by the use of the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) to restructure Laurentian University.
Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus (NDP) pressed for the emergency debate, which was granted by the House of Commons.
Although post-secondary education is a provincial responsibility, Angus said the federal government has a role to play.
He said the CCAA laws need to be changed “so that we never again can have precedent where we can have a public institution that can be ripped apart and destroyed.”
“There are national implications about what is happening there right now,” Angus said.
“The use of the CCAA, the creditor protection act, to demolish a public institution, is something that we have to deal with at the federal level to make sure it can never happen again.
“Because if we allow this precedent, you can bet your bottom dollar that premiers like (Alberta Premier) Jason Kenney and other right-wingers will use the CCAA to attack public institutions. That was not the reason that legislation was put in place.”
The cuts to programs, faculty and staff announced by the university this week also have implications for Francophone and Indigenous populations, said Angus, and these two areas are under federal jurisdiction.
“I’m calling on this prime minister to show up and come up with a plan to work to save Laurentian,” Angus said.
The two Liberal MPs representing the Greater Sudbury area, Paul Lefebvre for Sudbury and Marc Serré for Nickel Belt, were among the politicians who weighed in.
Lefebvre, the MP for Sudbury, announced he would be introducing a private member’s bill Monday that would amend the CCAA Act to ensure that post-secondary institutions can never use it again to restructure.
“The reason why I’m doing this is very simple,” he said. “The carnage and anxiety that I’ve seen in our community should not be repeated anywhere else across the country … We need to ensure that this never happens again.”
Angus said he appreciates that Lefebvre wants to bring forward a private member’s bill, but he said more is needed.
“This isn’t just the jurisdiction of the provincial government,” Angus said. “This is a national symbol. Were there problems with the management? Absolutely. But I’m asking my colleague what has he asked the prime minister to do so we can preserve this institution?”
Lefebvre said over the past couple of months, he’s spoken to his federal colleagues to see what they might do, and spoke to the provincial government about the matter, as it is their jurisdiction.
“That being said, our government has been steadfast to say we will work with the province to help out as we move forward,” he said. “The prime minister has said the same thing.”
The Sudbury MP said he’s been asked by constituents to “get involved and stop” the CCAA process at Laurentian.
“We are not China,” Lefebvre said. “We are not Russia. Politicians do not stop an independent judicial process. I know that’s frustrating. If we could, we would, and we don’t agree with it. But that’s not how a democracy that we live in works.”
The most senior Liberal who spoke Wednesday was Mélanie Joly, the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages.
She expressed concern about the situation at Laurentian, but said education is a provincial jurisdiction.
“I am ready to work with them and have many discussions to come, but our provincial partners need to come forward with solutions, and we will then be there to support them, through funding,” Joly said.
“We need to support language rights, which, of course, is a federal jurisdiction, but the work needs to be done on the ground by the province.”
Charlie Angus, whose own father went back to school at Laurentian in his thirties and eventually became a professor of economics, said the university is incredibly important to Northern Ontario.
“Doug Ford and his buddies probably don’t think it’s a problem that if you’re from Kapuskasing or Hearst, just go down to Toronto or go down to Guelph,” he said.
“Well they can’t. Laurentian makes it possible. Laurentian removed the barriers for so many people in a region that has suffered massive youth out-migration year-in, year-out.”
He talked about a number of important Laurentian programs that have been cut, including midwifery, which produces trained medical personnel that provide service to remote communities in Northern Ontario.
Sudbury is also home to a neutrino observatory that has done Nobel-prize-winning research, and yet Laurentian’s physics program has been cut, meaning the local university will no longer be able to contribute.
Angus said Laurentian needs to get rid of the university president and board of governors who set the CCAA in motion.
“Because if you look at what they put on their plan, this isn’t a restructuring, this is an act of intellectual vandalism,” he said. “That is without precedent.”
He said while there were mistakes made by Laurentian’s leadership, the situation is indicative of a larger crisis in post-secondary education.
Students pay large tuition fees and university administrators deny tenured positions for professors, all while putting up new buildings with “all the bells and whistles,” he said.
Marc Serré said he’s “disappointed and actually angry” at the situation.
“I’m so sad for our community what’s it’s going through — the massive uncertainty of the faculty, the staff and the students who are finalizing their exams as we speak, and the many students who are unclear if they want to attend Laurentian University in September.”
The debate occurred as Laurentian finalizes its court-supervised restructuring.
Laurentian president Robert Haché issued an update to the community today.
Materials are now being finalized for filing with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice for an extension of the Initial Stay Order (which protected the university from its creditors) to allow Laurentian to continue to the next phase in the CCAA process.
This includes additional financial support from its CCAA lender in order to continue to operate.
He also provided more information for students impacted by the termination of the agreement with the federated universities operating on the Laurentian campus. He said “solutions are being worked on.”
“For example, Laurentian University will provide approximately 140 students registered in the Indigenous Studies program at the University of Sudbury with access to courses rooted in Indigenous perspectives already on offer, mostly through Laurentian’s Faculty of Arts, in a range of disciplines,” he said.