Laurentian University violated French Language Services Act when it cut programs: report
Sudbury university eliminated 29 French-language programs in April 2021 after filing for insolvency
Sudbury's Laurentian University violated Ontario's French Language Services Act when it cut 29 programs in April 2021, according to a new report from the province's French language services commissioner.
Kelly Burke, Ontario's deputy ombudsman and French language services commissioner, concluded the Ministry of Francophone Affairs also "failed to take an active role in monitoring Laurentian University's compliance with its designation, which contributed to a situation where no one was ensuring the protection of language rights under the French Language Services Act."
In February 2021, Laurentian filed for insolvency and entered into creditor protection. In April that year, the university cut 72 programs, including 29 French-language ones. The university also eliminated more than 100 faculty and staff positions.
After the cuts, Burke said she received 60 complaints from students, teachers and Franco-Ontarians who were directly affected by the cuts to francophone education.
On June 16, 2021, her office launched its investigation to determine whether or not Laurentian, and the ministries for Francophone Affairs and Colleges and Universities had broken the French Language Services Act.
"The university violated the requirements of the act by ceasing to offer two designated degrees [master of arts and master of human kinetics] without following any of the mandated procedural steps," the report said.
"I also found that there was no process in place to assess how eliminating programs leading to designated degrees may impact the ability of students to obtain those degrees in French."
During a news conference Thursday morning, Burke said the university did not consult with the Ministry of Colleges and Universities or the Ministry of Francophone Affairs about the potential impacts of cuts to French-language programs.
"Why is that?" she asked.
19 recommendations made
Burke said she made 19 recommendations, which touch on three key areas: assessment, consultation and collaboration.
"I concluded that the lack of consultation in any assessment process led to the university's violation of the French Languages Service Act," she said.
"I also noted that the lack of consultation, assessment and collaboration processes resulted from the lack of proactivity on the part of the three organizations."
Burke noted in her report that all her recommendations have been accepted by the provincial ministries and Laurentian University.
French education 'an afterthought,' says advocate
Denis Constantineau, spokesperson for the Coalition Nord-Ontarienne pour une Université de Langue Française (Northern Ontario Coalition for a French-Language University), said there was "lots of buzz" in the francophone community following the Thursday morning release of the report.
The coalition has been pushing for the University of Sudbury to take over the offerings of French programs and a university by and for French speakers.
Constantineau said the commissioner's report bolsters that argument.
"[Laurentian] calls itself a bilingual institution but it didn't consider the impact on the francophone community when it proceeded to close programs. It just shows that the French-language element at Laurentian is an afterthought, as it always has been."
Former Laurentian student Maël Bisson said he wasn't entirely surprised by the contents of the report. Bisson left Laurentian after his program, theatre, was cut. He's now studying at the Université de Moncton.
"I saw all my friends, my community basically just crumble to dust under the pressure and just the surprise that Laurentian brought up to us," Bisson said.
Current student Philippe Mathieu said he doesn't believe Laurentian should be able to call itself a bilingual university.
"Even before these cuts came into place, it was already struggling as it is, but ever since you know this last year has kind of came into play, it has been very clear that this is uniquely an anglophone post-secondary institution, there is no question about it," Mathieu said.
"To me it is clear that they did not care about violating the French Language Services Act."
Laurentian University declined CBC's request for an interview.
In a statement, Laurentian said its bilingual mandate is "core" to the university's identity. The university said it welcomes the commissioner's report and recommendations, and is "fully committed to continuing to attract students who wish to study in French."
Marilissa Gosselin, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Francophone Affairs, said in a statement that Laurentian "is an autonomous institution and has sole discretion over its academic and administrative matters. The government expects that the university act in the best interests of all students, including French-language, Indigenous and students in need of added supports."
The Ministry of Colleges and Universities gave CBC a similar statement.
- A previous version of this story said Laurentian University cut 28 French-language programs in the main photo caption. It has since been corrected to say 29.Mar 31, 2022 9:26 PM ET
With files from Sarah MacMillan