Ontario NDPs calls for ed. minister to resign

Federal NDP accuse feds of “passing the buck” call for sacking LU admin and board

SUDBURY – The unfolding debacle that is the restructuring of Laurentian University as the first-ever public education institution to enter bankruptcy protection has led to the loss of over 60 programs, including a large number of unique francophone and Indigenous programs.

In a press conference held through video conference on Wednesday, April 13, Sudbury NDP MPP Jamie West and Nickel Belt MPP France Gélinas hosted a virtual press conference Wednesday afternoon in which they called on Premier Doug Ford to remove Colleges and Universities Minister Ross Romano.

The NDP MPPs were joined on the panel by Guy Bourgouin, NDP critic for francophone affairs, Mario McLean, a third year géographie/histoire/éducation student at Laurentian and political science professor Nadia Verrelli. Laura Mae Lindo, NDP critic for colleges and universities was to be on the call, but was not present on the panel.

During the hour-and-a-half press conference, the panel reviewed the challenges and immense stress that the program cuts and layoffs have placed on the Laurentian community and Sudbury in general.

Mr. West referenced the impact of the announcements on the roughly 6,000 Laurentian students and how the cuts are an affront to the university’s francophone students. He pointed out that the crisis developed under the watch of Mr. Romano and yet the minister has been absent from the issue. “Minister Romano did nothing to protect, Minister Romano chose to do nothing,” he said, pointing to the loss of 70 programs and 100 employees. Mr. West went on to call for Ontario Premier Doug Ford to remove Mr. Romano from his portfolio.

Ms. Gelinas spoke at length en française, reiterating much of what Mr. West had pointed out.

Ms. Verrelli, for her part, noted that she has been employed since 2014 at Laurentian and gave illustration of the brutality of the means by which her employment was truncated. She was given barely a few days to turn in her laptop and other university material, leaving her to scramble to transfer the book she has been writing and the work she has been peer reviewing onto another system, but those challenges pale in comparison to the emotional impact the sudden loss of employment and the impact the course cancellations have on her students.

Mr. McLean noted that the lack of communication from the university was challenging in the first instance, but the assurances that he would be able complete his studies rang hollow when the options were reviewed. In any event, coming in the midst of exams left him struggling to put his best foot forward on those exams.

In the days following the provincial NDP virtual press conference, the federal NDP proved they were not to be left behind on the issue, with NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay Charlie Angus calling for an emergency debate on Wednesday, April 14. The five-hour evening debate saw Mr. Angus lambasting the Laurentian University cuts and restructuring in no uncertain terms.

“What we heard on Monday was a shocking attack on education on programs, on opportunities, slash, slash, slash, slash, slash,” said Mr. Angus during the debate, going on to assert that Parliament needs to study the issue and come up with solutions. 

Mr. Angus said he is concerned other provinces will use Laurentian as a precedent, allowing them to go into creditor protection. “And if nothing’s done, this could spell the beginning of the end for publicly-funded post-secondary education,” he said.

“I mean, Doug Ford and his buddies probably don’t think it’s a problem that if you’re in Kapuskasing or Hearst, well just go down to Toronto, just go down to Guelph,” he said. “Laurentian makes it possible. Laurentian removed the barriers for so many people in a region that has suffered such youth outmigration year in, year out.”

While his provincial counterparts called for the head of Mr. Romano, Mr. Angus went further to say that Laurentian needs to get rid of the university president and board of governors who set the creditor protection process 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,” said Mr. Angus. “That is without precedent.”

“It’s hard to understand,” said Sudbury Liberal MP Paul Lefebvre. “We have many questions, there are many concerns. I am very worried—I’m worried for the mental health of teachers, students and their families. They don’t know what’s going on. There’s a lot of uncertainty—there’s not much communication.”

Mr. Lefebvre has introduced a private member’s bill to prevent universities from seeking creditor protection.

“The government has admitted that French is declining in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada and now the government needs to put its money where its mouth is,” Mr. Lefebvre said. Mr. Lefebvre has announced that he will not be running for office in the next federal election.

“The minister has a duty to act and that’s what we expect, Mr. Chair, in this case we expect action on Laurentian University,” said Steven Blaney, a Quebec Conservative MP, during the debate.

“The government has admitted that French is declining in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada, and now the government needs to put its money where its mouth is,” said the Bloc Quebecois’ Mario Beaulieu.

“We are not China,” Sudbury MP Paul Lefebvre said, pointing out that there are challenges in the way of government intervention. “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 responsibility for education lies squarely (and constitutionally) in the provincial realm.

“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,” said Mélanie Joly, minister of economic development and official languages. “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.”