Asked if she’d transfer all of Laurentian University’s French-language programs to the University of Sudbury if her party were elected and she becomes premier in 2022, the leader of Ontario’s New Democrats said “we will absolutely do that.”
This is a demand made by the University of Sudbury as it attempts to transform itself into a Francophone university after Laurentian declared insolvency earlier this year and cut ties with federated universities operating on campus, including the U of S.
Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath made the comments during a visit to Laurentian University’s campus Wednesday morning.
She was joined at the press briefing at the university’s student centre by local NDP MPPs Jamie West and France Gélinas and Mushkegowuk-James Bay MPP Guy Bourgouin, along with Jean-Charles Cachon, the former secretary-treasurer of the Laurentian University Faculty Association (LUFA).
When federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh visited the University of Sudbury in August, during the federal election campaign, he did not commit to the idea of transferring French-language programs to the University of Sudbury.
This elicited some consternation among supporters of the effort to preserve French-language post-secondary education in Sudbury.
But Horwath said the Ontario NDP’s caucus has already made the decision to support the University of Sudbury’s plans.
She said having a university “for Francophones, by Francophones” in Sudbury, as well as an Anglophone university “is something that we are very clearly supportive of.”
“We will absolutely do that,” she said. “I say that with complete conviction because we’ve already had the conversation at our caucus. We had the conversation with the representatives here, the MPPs. It’s their community. They know what the community wants.
“They informed the rest of our caucus that this is the position that we should be taking, and so we agreed. I agreed. We will definitely do that.”
Asked whether she would support continued bilingualism at Laurentian, Horwath said she will listen to what the community has to say on that topic.
“The specifics around the bilingual opportunities here at Laurentian are things that we will be engaging on,” she said.
“There’s work that we need to do … I like to listen before I make the decision. I listen to our MPPs, make sure that we identified the commitment to keeping Laurentian as a university here and funding it properly. and making sure that it’s stable, but also having a for-Francophone, by-Francophone university as well.”
During his August visit to the University of Sudbury, Singh said he wanted to save “all the programs” at Laurentian University, which has made massive program and staff cuts after declaring insolvency.
Asked if the Ontario NDP are making the same promise, Horwath said “that’s something that’s going to be on the table.”
“We have to rebuild this university. We can’t have over half of the positions cut and expect the university to thrive.”
Horwath sharply criticized Ontario Premier Doug Ford for what she said is his lack of response to the situation at Laurentian. “Our current Ford government refuses to step up,” she said. “We haven’t seen Mr. Ford at all address this crisis.”
She was also asked what the provincial government can realistically do while Laurentian is undergoing court-supervised insolvency restructuring under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA).
“What I’d like to see is for Doug Ford to show up,” she said.
“He’s really shown that he’s not here for the people of Sudbury. He’s not here for those professors, not here for the other staff, he’s not here for the community, which he’s thrown into crisis with this situation
“He needs to clearly show some leadership and commit to a solution that meets the needs of the Francophone community.”
Sudbury.com reached out to the premier’s office for comment on Horwath’s remarks.
The premier's office provided a written response, saying they share the concerns of students, workers and all those affected by Laurentians' insolvency, and that's why the province moved quickly to appoint Dr. Alan Harrison as special advisor to the government on the situation. Harrison's findings have yet to be publicly released.
"Since day one, our focus has always been on ensuring that current Laurentian University students can continue their studies without interruption, and that there will be a long-term sustainable solution to providing post-secondary education in Sudbury," said the written statement from the premier's office.
"Unlike the band-aid approach of the Opposition, our government is continuing to take a fact-based and rational approach that will address core issues at hand to best support students and staff alike in the short, medium, and long term. Going forward, the government continues to monitor the CCAA process closely with the assistance of our special advisor Dr. Alan Harrison to best support the long-term sustainability of post-secondary education in Sudbury and Northern Ontario.
The premier's office also said the province offered one-time financial assistance of up to $4,000 to students who needed to transfer to another publicly assisted post-secondary institution due to their program at Laurentian University being discontinued – with no alternate related programs available at the university.
As Harrison continues to provide expertise and confidential advice until his term ends on Dec. 31, 2021 it would be inappropriate to comment further, said the premier's office.
Jean-Charles Cachon, who taught business at Laurentian until he was forced to retire as part of the university’s cuts this spring, and was, until earlier this year, the secretary-treasurer of the Laurentian faculty association, spoke at the press conference.
He said the programs that were most affected “were the reason why Laurentian was created 60 years ago,” namely to train those who wished to teach in French. “The clock has been turned back over 60 years,” Cachon said. “Welcome to the 1950s.”
Including jobs lost at both Laurentian and the formerly federated universities operating on campus, there are 180 less professors' positions in Sudbury than there were in 2019 (down to 228 from 408). The job losses include people who have retired or resigned, none of whom are being replaced, Cachon said.
Cachon said with the program cuts and job losses at Laurentian, jobs at other institutions and businesses will also be lost as a result (although he said it may be a year or two before the full impacts are known), and Sudbury will begin to see youth outmigration once again.
“It’s extremely serious, and the current inaction of governments, in particular in Toronto, but also in Ottawa is a very sad situation, not only for Northern Ontario, but for Canada in general,” he said.