Sudbury·Audio

Laurentian University president grilled by northern Ontario MPs at Commons committee

The president of Laurentian University was called to a House of Commons committee Tuesday to discuss Indigenous midwifery education, but faced pointed questions about the school's finances and its staff and program cuts.

Robert Haché says real estate review by Sudbury, Ont., school focused on 'buildings and structures'

Laurentian University president Robert Haché spoke virtually Tuesday to the House of Commons standing committee on the status of women. He was questioned by MPs about the Sudbury, Ont., school's financial situation, and its staff and program cuts. (Parliament of Canada)

The president of Laurentian University was called to a House of Commons committee Tuesday to discuss Indigenous midwifery education, but faced pointed questions about the school's finances and its staff and program cuts. 

Northern Ontario MPs on the standing committee on the status of women wanted to hear more from Robert Haché on how the university ended up in creditor protection, leading to the layoff of over 100 staff.

In the virtual meeting, Charlie Angus, New Democrat representing Timmins-James Bay, wanted to know how Haché went from telling students last spring that the university was close to balancing its budget and then scrapping dozens of programs less than a year later.

"You're not telling us something here. Were you not aware that debt was there or were you using this process for other reasons?" Angus asked.

Haché replied: "Well, simply it was required that we have a balanced budget. At that point, Laurentian had no additional capacity to take on additional debt."

He said that for years, Laurentian had the "poorest financial health of any university in the province" and staff "worked very hard" before the pandemic to meet the "projected budget," but then post-COVID, it "simply had no more room."

Haché says while the pandemic had a big impact on the school's finances, the insolvency was at least a decade in the making. (Parliament of Canada)

Angus also wanted to know if Laurentian sought relief from the provincial or federal governments when it found out the extent of the financial hole it had to get out of.

"Did Minister Romano tell you you were on your own or the federal government? I can't imagine they all just said 'Hey well, whatever. We'll just see it all torn down,'" Angus told the virtual meeting of the committee Tuesday.

Haché said that Laurentian had "extensive conversations" with the province, as well as some with federal representatives, in the months leading up to the insolvency filing on Feb. 1.

Charlie Angus, New Democrat MP for Timmins-James Bay, questioned why Laurentian claimed to be getting back into fiscal balance just months before dropping the 'bombshell' of going into creditor protection. (Parliament of Canada)

"I can't comment on the decision-making process on the government side," he said. 

Marc Serré, Liberal MP for Nickel Belt, told Haché that many in the North have a "big issue with the process that's been followed and the transparency."

He was especially concerned "one of the most beautiful campuses in Canada" might be sold off in pieces.

Haché said Laurentian has a "duty" to review the space it has and see if any of it is "truly surplus" to the needs of students. 

"I'm not talking about the lands of the university necessarily, but really focused on physical infrastructure in terms of buildings and structures that might have other purposes that could benefit the university going forward," he said.

Nickel Belt Liberal MP Marc Serré worries about Laurentian selling off pieces of 'one of the most beautiful campuses' in Canada. (Parliament of Canada )

Serré also asked about the cutting of the midwifery program, which will see students finish their degrees through universities in southern Ontario. The MP said the other schools have little experience training students in the francophone, Indigenous and rural realities of the North.

Haché said the university had "no choice" but to cut midwifery, since the program "cost us more to deliver than we were getting back in revenue." But he admitted giving students a chance to finish their courses in French is a "challenge."

Laurentian University president Robert Haché took some tough questions from northern MPs during a House of Commons committee meeting. We have some of what was said during that meeting. 9:38

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?

now