The communities of Sudbury and all of northern Ontario have been in shock since February 1, 2021, following news of Laurentian University’s insolvency and the restructuring process it undertook by invoking the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA).
This is nothing short of a Canadian first for a public institution. On April 12, Laurentian University announced the results of its cold accounting examinations with human disregard.
The axe has fallen — 28 French-language programs have been eliminated; more than 100 teachers have lost their jobs (some have even been deprived of their maternity leave); and they could see their pensions sharply reduced. The loss to students, teachers, staff and the entire community of northern Ontario is immeasurable.
We are talking about Laurentian University, the largest and oldest university in the north of the province. Its bilingual designation, its tricultural character (as it offers English, French and Indigenous programming) and the fact that it is an essential pillar of the economy are all vital elements in ensuring the quality of life in northern Ontario.
The community is reasonably upset by this situation, but it may be the first of many to experience such loss in the face of this dangerous precedent. We know that Laurentian University is not alone in its financial challenges. It would be completely devastating to see other public institutions, from other parts of the country, undertake a similar process to protect themselves from their creditors. This is, as yet, unheard of.
We are facing a global emergency to which the House of Commons has responded swiftly and strongly. The day after Laurentian announced the cuts, a motion supporting the Franco-Ontarian community and recalling the essential role of higher education in French for the vitality of francophone and Acadian communities was unanimously adopted, followed by a four-hour emergency debate on the evening of the following day, April 14.
The government of Quebec has also shown solidarity by adopting a unanimous motion denouncing the cuts to Laurentian University.
As a senator from northern Ontario, it has been a priority for me to bring a similar motion to the Senate to allow Parliament and parliamentarians to speak with one voice. On April 20, after reading a statement on the troubling developments at Laurentian University, I gave notice in the Red Chamber that I would move the following motion during the next sitting of the Senate:
”That the Senate:
Given the urgency of the situation, consent was sought to allow the motion to be considered and put to a vote later that same day. Despite considerable support from senators from all groups and caucuses in the Senate, some Conservative senators denied the required unanimous consent.
In the context of the pandemic we are all facing, the Senate does not sit as frequently as it usually would. With the next sitting of the Senate scheduled for May 4, studying this motion at that time does not take into account the urgency of the situation, nor the fact we must act now to ensure that negotiations by the federal and provincial governments aim to find a solution in order to avoid irreparable harm.
The francophone minority community in northern Ontario depends on Laurentian University for its development, support and future. I urge the Canadian population to support the community that is once again required to defend its constitutional and quasi-constitutional rights in terms of official languages and post-secondary education.
Senator Josée Forest-Niesing represents the region of northern Ontario in the Senate.
A version of this article was published in the April 22, 2021 edition of The Sudbury Star.