The Senate

Motion Concerning the Closure of Programs at Laurentian University--Debate Continued

June 28, 2021


Hon. Jean-Guy Dagenais [ + ]

Honourable senators, I rise today to unreservedly support Senator Forest-Niesing’s motion to show solidarity with the Franco-Ontarian community, especially francophones in the Sudbury area who are affected by the closure of French-language programs at Laurentian University.

First, I consider this situation to be completely unacceptable in a country where two official languages are recognized by law and where fundamental rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are being threatened, essentially for what seem to be financial reasons.

Canada has two founding peoples, but the unfortunate fact of the matter is that francophones have always had to fight to secure respect for their language and ensure its survival.

This is essentially an ethnic battle that has been going on since Confederation. In 1871, New Brunswick stopped funding denominational schools, which provided instruction in French. In 1890, Manitoba did the same. In 1892, the Northwest Territories, out of which the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were carved, dismantled schools that taught in French, and Ontario followed suit in 1912.

Of course, there are still francophones in all those provinces, but they are minorities that have always had to fight for their continued existence. We live in a country with so many rights for everyone, yet it seems that the co-founders’ battle over language will never end, even though bilingualism is clearly defined in the British North America Act, 1867. Speaking French, living in French and especially studying in French are ethnic rights.

This is not the time for more committees to rehash an issue that has already been resolved by the Constitution and our laws. I would like to remind everyone about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement, as delivered by his Governor General when the fall 2020 session of Parliament began. I will quote that statement in case anyone has forgotten it:

The defence of the rights of Francophones outside Quebec, and the defence of the rights of the Anglophone minority within Quebec, is a priority for the Government.

In a country with two founding peoples and two official languages and where bilingualism should be applauded and considered an advantage, not a hindrance, I am always shocked, even appalled, when I sometimes see politicians spring out of their seats to oppose a quick debate, like the one we are having today, with a view to laying the foundation for collective action to help the Franco-Ontarian community.

Just as the anglophones of the country would stand up and fight if their rights were threatened in Quebec, we, as francophones, need to show the entire country that we disapprove of what is happening in Sudbury.

I have already said it, but, in closing, I would like to remind senators that we must leave no stone unturned when an ethnic right as fundamental as language is at risk. Higher education in French at Laurentian University cannot be eliminated because it helps to guarantee the vitality of the Franco-Ontarian community.

Senators of all political stripes need to show that they care about the concerns raised by the termination of French education programs at Laurentian University. We need to all work together to unconditionally adopt Senator Forest-Niesing’s motion. That is what the members of the other place did unanimously because they understood the importance and seriousness of the situation. Thank you.

Esteemed colleagues, I rise today to speak to Motion No. 85 regarding the massive cuts at Laurentian University in Sudbury.

First, I’d like to thank Senator Forest-Niesing for moving this motion and raising this important issue in the Senate. I commend her for her dedication to her community and to post-secondary education. Laurentian University is an extremely important academic institution for northern Ontario and the Franco-Ontarian community. I also recognize the importance of this motion given that cuts to the university disproportionately affect Ontario’s minority language community, and I recognize it as an issue of national importance.

As you know, I myself come from an academic and university background, and so I recognize the importance of quality post-secondary education programs, first and foremost for the education of our youth, but also as a way to encourage innovation and research in Canada.

I’d like to outline a few points that lead me to support this motion.

First, the courses and programs offered at Canadian universities must be broad and varied. Canada wants to be among the world’s leading researchers and innovators. To make that happen, our universities must offer a multitude of programs in all areas of study. Canadian youth must have access to these programs in all regions of the country if we are to produce the most qualified and sought-after workers and researchers in the world.

We must also consider the importance of the language of study. We know that Ontario is a majority English province where the main language of work is English. However, the ability to study and work in French increases the skills and the competitiveness of students on the job market, not only in Canada, but also internationally. The ability to do research in several languages increases opportunities for employment and research partnerships. In addition, the Franco-Ontarian community, which is the largest francophone community outside Quebec, has a fundamental right to education at all levels in their mother tongue. French-language post-secondary options in Ontario are already fairly limited, especially in northern Ontario. The loss of several French-language programs at Laurentian University further reduces access to French-language post-secondary education.

I think this also has a major impact on Indigenous communities in northern Ontario. Sudbury and the surrounding area are parts of Ontario with a relatively high Indigenous population.

The university is situated within the territory of the Robinson-Huron Treaty of 1850, on the traditional lands of the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek and in proximity to the Wahnapitae First Nation. It’s easier for regional universities near Indigenous populations to integrate members of the Indigenous community and advance reconciliation. Universities have an important role to play in reconciliation, and the loss of several programs at Laurentian University also limits Indigenous communities’ access to post-secondary education.

We must also support our regional and mid-sized Canadian universities. Large universities have big budgets and are currently welcoming a record number of foreign students. They have much larger operating and maintenance budgets than our regional universities do. Still, our regional universities provide Canadian citizens with important educational programs. Considering Canada’s low birth rates and increasing dependence on immigration and incoming international students, small and mid-sized universities are at a severe disadvantage compared to universities in big cities. The survival of our universities will therefore depend on targeted support from us. Let’s not be naive. Laurentian University is not an isolated case. Other regional universities will be faced with similar cuts if we don’t do something.

Finally, I would like to add that it will be easier to resolve a financial impasse at our regional universities than at the largest ones. The government has the ability to act to reverse the budget cuts, and it has a duty to act, given that this is a francophone university in a minority setting.

I support this motion and ask that the federal government intervene in this file, within its jurisdiction, to stop these massive cuts that will have a detrimental impact on worker education and training in northern Ontario.

Thank you. Meegwetch.

Hon. Patricia Bovey [ + ]

Honourable senators, I rise from Winnipeg, located in Treaty 1 territory, the traditional lands of the Anishinaabe, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dene and Dakota, and the birthplace of the Métis Nation and the heart of the Métis Nation homeland. I rise to speak briefly to my concerns around and for the situation regarding Laurentian University. I support Senator Forest-Niesing’s motion.

The financial concerns are real, and the spinoffs are significant. The cancellation of Laurentian University’s agreement with federated colleges will affect many programs, most of them Indigenous and francophone.

I am not going to get into the details of what propelled the specific recent decisions to manage the financial realities; I’m too far removed. But I do worry about the people impacted directly by the situation: the many faculty and staff job losses, the loss of their pensions and lack of severance pay, I understand. I am concerned, too, about any potential negative effects on ongoing research and scientific experiments, some being long-term partnership agreements with other Canadian and international universities.

There is the impact on students, especially those nearing graduation after enduring a long and complicated year due to the pandemic. While I am pleased other universities have come forward to enable those nearing the completion of their studies to take their outstanding courses through their schools, I can only imagine the tension and anxiety the students must have been feeling.

I believe Canada’s universities are well run and well governed. As the former chair of two of Canada’s universities and adjunct professor at two others, I know the complexity and integration of funding, the rules and regulations that universities must abide by in all their activities and the multiple joint projects they undertake.

I am also aware that universities fall under provincial responsibility. However, not every aspect of our universities is provincial. The federal government has a clear involvement in our institutions of higher learning. Our universities are bicameral organizations with their boards and senates, each having distinct, yet related, responsibilities.

My point of speaking today is to ensure that we are all aware of at least some of those federal interconnections with our universities. They include immigration permits and visas for foreign students and faculty. Indeed, COVID has seriously negatively affected the enrolment of international students in all our universities, causing a definite loss of international student revenues. It is clear, for instance, that the Saudi Arabian decision to prohibit their students from studying in Canada had a huge impact on Laurentian’s fate. I believe that the number of lost enrolments alone was 135 students.

Second, the federal government contributes significant and important research funds to our universities. As I have said, many of those have international implications. Their results are critically important to Canadian society as a whole, whether those researchers are working on COVID, autonomous vehicles or all sorts of substantive issues and societal needs.

Third, the federal government contributes to student aid.

Fourth, the federal government contributes to capital projects, often on a matching basis.

Further, I can add that the funding of francophone programs is aided by the federal government. As we in this chamber discuss the paper by Minister Joly on official languages, I think we need to underline that francophone education across this country is essential. I fear the cuts to francophone programs at Laurentian will lessen that training when it is particularly needed, and I hope this will not be the case anywhere else. I trust it can be reversed.

Reconciliation is an important national goal, too. We have talked about it a great deal. It’s particularly important now, especially in recent days following the horror of the discovery of the 215 bodies of First Nations children at the former Kamloops residential school and the 751 bodies of children and adults found last week in Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan.

Indigenous programs in our universities have federal support, and it is our responsibility to ensure that continues and that the programs are effective and timely. As Senator Sinclair has said many times, education got us into this mess; education will get us out of it. We must ensure those education doors are open at every level of learning. Cutting opportunities does not help. Further, Indigenous histories are critically important to all students.

Colleagues, our time is limited, as we’re about to rise and we have had much on our plate, so I won’t go on. Suffice it to say, I believe we must continue to monitor the situation at Laurentian University and the implications across the country at other universities and colleges, and in societal attitudes to higher education.

The federal government has a particular and important role to play in this situation and in all universities. While this situation is being spoken of by some as being an anomaly, I trust it will not become a precedent for all academic programs with small registrations. Many of those are absolutely critical to Canada as a whole. We have seen a number of important small programs die in recent years, and I hope the Laurentian University realities do not spell more.

As society is undergoing a paradigm shift in many aspects, we must ensure our universities are constructively part of those shifts. Universities are microcosms of their communities and regions, contributing significantly to the local economy and providing substantial leadership and expertise in all areas of regional development and citizens’ lives. They train our future leaders and workers, so I support this motion. Thank you.

Hon. René Cormier [ + ]

Honourable senators, I want to speak briefly this evening in support of Senator Forest-Niesing’s motion calling on the Senate, among other things, to recall the essential role of higher education in French for the vitality of the Franco-Canadian and Acadian communities, to also recall the responsibility to defend and promote linguistic rights, as expressed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Official Languages Act, and to urge the government of Canada to take all necessary steps, in accordance with its jurisdiction, to ensure the vitality and development of official language minority communities.

Colleagues, although the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages, the Honourable Mélanie Joly, recently announced $5 million to help Laurentian University, and although she’s expressed her desire to work with the Government of Ontario to ensure that northern Ontario has a university by and for francophones, I want to add my voice to those calling on the federal government and all potential partners at the provincial and local levels to work quickly on identifying solutions and making this happen.

Northern Ontario has an exceptional culture and has, for generations, been a landmark of and a cultural hub for the Canadian francophonie. Everyone recognizes the essential role that institutions play in maintaining communities and helping them to flourish. Universities and colleges, much like cultural institutions, are the pillars of this ecosystem.

I want to share a quote from the Francophone Heritage, Culture and Tourism Corridor about the greater Sudbury area:

In the 1970s, Sudbury was at the centre of a wave of turmoil surrounding Franco-Ontarian identity that eventually laid the foundation for a distinctive Franco-Ontarian culture. Artists at the forefront of the “Nouvel-Ontario” movement soon founded a theatre, a publishing house, a festival of emerging music and an art gallery in the city. Today, the broad range of French-language or bilingual social and cultural services available to the . . . residents make Greater Sudbury a rich and stimulating place to live.

This rich life is due in part to the presence of educational and cultural institutions. However, the drastic cuts made to Laurentian University have deprived this region of essential development tools. For instance, the theatre program at this post-secondary institution has been eliminated.

Greater Sudbury is home to one of Canada’s most influential francophone theatres, the Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario. Over the years, thanks to outstanding artists and artisans such as Brigitte Haentjens, Jean-Marc Dalpé, Paulette Gagnon and many others, northern Ontario has produced some of the most memorable theatrical productions of the past decades.

Firmly rooted in the Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario, the Prise de parole publishing house has published the works of exceptional authors who’ve helped stimulate creative writing in minority communities in Sudbury and beyond.

Since it was established in 1973, Éditions Prise de parole has published 475 titles and showcased French Canadian authors such as Michel Ouellette, Herménégilde Chiasson, Alain Doom and Marguerite Andersen. Colleagues, this publishing house was strengthened by the presence of post-secondary institutions in that region and vice versa. Depriving northern Ontario of French-language educational institutions will have a catastrophic effect on the region and our country.

Honourable senators, Sudbury and northern Ontario need our support today so that they can continue to thrive in French and contribute to the francophone space in Canada, which is one of the pillars of our national identity.

This region is not the only one in this situation right now. I’m thinking of the Université de Moncton, which has made an immeasurable contribution to the development of the Acadian people. This institution is facing challenges that require urgent support and ongoing attention from all levels of government. The same goes for practically all of the francophone universities in minority communities, including Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia, Université de Saint-Boniface, Campus Saint-Jean in Alberta and even the Office of Francophone and Francophile Affairs at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

The introduction of Bill C-32 on official languages suggests that the government is truly taking into account the challenges facing the entire education continuum, including post-secondary education. Let’s hope that this bill becomes law as quickly as possible.

That said, esteemed colleagues, I encourage you to vote in favour of this motion as soon as possible. I sincerely thank Senator Forest-Niesing for this initiative, and I thank you for your attention.

Hon. Lucie Moncion [ + ]

I would first like to commend Senator Forest-Niesing for this motion. It’s a solid motion that shines a light on significant problems at Laurentian University and at other Canadian universities. The situation at Laurentian University in Sudbury is very uncommon. Its financial problems are so serious that it will be hard to help this university, given the size of its debt.

Sudbury’s university community was severely affected by the cuts. Both French- and English-language programs were cut. Research funds for innovation have disappeared. The money is gone; it was used to fund the university’s operations. Scholarship funds were also used to pay the university’s operating expenses.

There are significant problems because Laurentian University has placed itself beyond the reach of creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act, which prevents anyone from intervening in any legal process under way. That means the university is protected from creditors, but it’s also out of reach of anyone who could provide assistance.

Another very worrisome point is that the Government of Ontario is not getting involved in this issue at all. It has yet to announce any potential funding or commit to any kind of assistance for Laurentian University. The university’s situation is jeopardizing other Canadian universities. At some point, the provinces will want to opt out of their obligations regarding post-secondary and graduate education.

I commend Senator Forest-Niesing once again for moving this motion. I urge all senators to vote in favour of this motion and to remember that post-secondary education in Canada is at risk in several provinces. This is an issue we should study in greater depth to protect our teachers, our institutions, our students and higher education in Canada. Thank you for your attention.

Senator Cormier [ + ]

Question.

Hon. Yonah Martin (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) [ + ]

I move the adjournment of the debate.

The Hon. the Speaker [ + ]

It was moved by the Honourable Senator Martin, seconded by the Honourable Senator Plett, that further debate be adjourned to the next sitting of the Senate. If you’re opposed to the motion, please say “no.”

The Hon. the Speaker [ + ]

I hear a “no.” All those in favour of the motion who are in the Senate Chamber will please say “yea.”

The Hon. the Speaker [ + ]

All those opposed please say “nay.”

The Hon. the Speaker [ + ]

In my opinion, the “yeas” have it. Do we have two hands up, table, or two senators rising? No. Carried.

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