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Why we should all be concerned about Laurentian University

Illustration of Laurentian University

The year 2021 will be remembered for many inglorious records. One of them is the first publicly-funded university—Laurentian University (LU)—filing for creditor protection under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA).

Founded in 1960, Laurentian University and its federated institutions transformed the nickel-mining city of Sudbury and other North-Ontarian communities into diversified hubs of innovation. Now, with the news out of Laurentian, this long-lasting hard work of enriching the region might come to a halt or undergo significant transformation.

On the “Black Monday” of April 12, the university announced via group Zoom calls the termination of 41 support staff, 36 administrators, close to 100 professors, and closure of 69 programs, including 28 French ones affecting hundreds of students. The restructuring plan created under a court-imposed gag order as part of the CCAA, the university will not need to respect severance pay obligations contained in collective agreements (CA) or the Employment Standards Act. The University even took away maternity leave benefits from terminated pregnant employees.

Laurentian University’s decision to go under the CCAA process forced both LU Faculty Association and LU Staff Union members to vote on new CAs, under threats by management to shutter the university if the members rejected them. Both groups reluctantly ratified those agreements.

Laurentian had been particularly proud of its bilingual and tricultural mandate (English and French with a comprehensive approach to Indigenous education) when recruiting students and staff, yet the current cuts show these were just empty words. The impact on students, staff, and the whole region disproportionally affects equity- seeking groups such as First Nations, Métis, Inuit (FNMI), and Franco-Ontarians. Located on the traditional lands of the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, LU unilaterally terminated its federation agreement with the University of Sudbury, putting the delivery of the pioneering Indigenous Studies program in jeopardy. Where will FNMI students who wish to study Indigenous Studies in French be able to go? The university is also closing the only bilingual midwifery program in Canada and the only such program offered in Northern Ontario. This program was self-sufficient since it has always had more applicants than spaces. If not for financial motives, why would LU cut this unique and successful bilingual midwifery program?

Many of the cuts are directed at Franco-Ontarian culture, language, and education programs, which have trained generations of Francophone leaders resulting in reduced assimilation rates. They led to an expansion of French-language educational opportunities across Ontario, notably in the twelve Francophone school boards, of which eight have OSSTF/FEESO Education Workers. Cuts to the French Faculty of Education programs for intermediate and senior qualifications will exacerbate the availability of qualified subject-specific French-speaking teachers in all school boards in the province.

Ross Romano, a graduate of Algoma University, MPP for Sault Ste. Marie, and the Minister of Colleges and Universities, stated during an emergency evening debate over LU’s precarious financial situation that the province is not part of the process under CCAA, and he refused to consider any proposed solutions by the opposition parties.

The LU crisis is not a result of the ongoing pandemic, as many suggest, but is caused by years of underfunding compounded by administrative management at LU. Ontario ranks last in Canada for per-student funding for universities receiving, only half of its funding from the government, with most institutions relying on tuition fees from in-province students and increasingly from out-of-province Canadian and international students.

After the Ford Government’s decision in 2019 to make significant cuts to OSAP, reduce student tuition fees by 10%, and then make those reductions permanent, universities had to find ways to address the Ford created structural budgetary deficits. The Ford government made changes to future post-secondary funding models by renegotiating Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs), which detail the priorities each University will need to focus on for the next five years. The government has chosen to implement a performance-based funding model whereby 2025 up to 60% of operational budgets will be based on how well each university will perform on ten metrics established by the government.

These changes will lead to less stable funding, and universities may reduce non-financially viable programs to mitigate the risk of experiencing financial troubles in the future. Universities are now aware that the Ford government will not be there for them if they are in financial jeopardy, which will entrench cost-cutting measures throughout the post-secondary sector in Ontario. Fewer diverse programs and increasingly precarious employment for professors and support staff will undermine the once-great PSE institutions in every part of this province.

OSSTF/FEESO has advocated for more transparency and oversight in university funding and how all Boards of Governors at each institution allocates these funds. The federation is working with the Ontario Federation of Labour and other labour organizations on the Save Our Sudbury advocacy campaign for Laurentian University staff and students. Part of this collaboration is looking at options other than the CCAA process to address these funding gaps threatening important post-secondary programs that, as seen as what has been happening at LU, disproportionally affecting students and communities from equity-seeking groups such as women, First Nations, Métis, Inuit, and Franco-Ontarians.

There is still time to act before the creditors decide on the restructuring plan. Support the Ontario Federation of Labour Campaign to save the university by registering on the campaign website and contacting your MP and MPP to ask them to act immediately, before it is too late. As the motto of the newspaper, Le Droit states, a symbol of the Franco-Ontarian courage and determination, L’avenir est à ceux qui luttent, [The future belongs to those who fight for it].

About Pawel Mazurek
Pawel Mazurek is the president of the Administrative Support Personnel—Saint Paul University/Université Saint Paul Bargaining Unit—District 35, and is the Chair of the Provincial Communications/Political Action Committee.

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