'We need to be seen': Demonstrators protest devastating Laurentian University cuts

Voices of protest continued to cry out Friday amid the fallout from massive cuts to Laurentian University's staff and programs in Sudbury, Ont., with about 150 demonstrators gathering downtown in near-freezing temperatures.

Honorary degree holder from the Sudbury, Ont., school says he's renouncing his doctorate in support

Rally organizer Melanie Murdock was among about 150 students, former professors and community members who took part in a demonstration along Paris Street in Sudbury, Ont., on Friday. Citing language and labour rights, they're calling for a ban on further cuts to Laurentian University programming. (Sam Juric/CBC)

Voices of protest continued to cry out Friday amid the fallout from massive cuts to Laurentian University's staff and programs in Sudbury, Ont., with about 150 demonstrators gathering downtown in near-freezing temperatures.

The protest follows the university's layoff Monday of roughly 100 staff and cuts of about 70 English, French and Indigenous programs. The school declared itself financially insolvent earlier this year, and filed for creditor protection on Feb. 1, a first for a university in the province.

Melanie Murdock, who organized Friday's rally of concerned students, professors and community members, said she will grieve the loss of the school's midwifery program in particular.

Murdock wants funding restored to the bilingual program — the only of its kind in Ontario.

A grassroots group rallied in Sudbury's downtown to protest the ongoing cuts at Laurentian University. (Sam Juric/CBC)

"We want to be funded so that these program closures can be reversed, and we need the government support in doing this," she said.

"We need help and we need to be seen today."

Murdock graduated from the program last spring.

"That's why it hits really close to home. I'm doing this not only in support for my fellow classmates that are still in the program, for my profs, the support staff in the midwifery programs, [and] for the profession as a whole."

Under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA), organizations in the insolvency process are allowed to restructure while working to deal with financial issues.

But Murdock said the closure of the midwifery program threatens the profession, as well as access to reproductive health care in Canada. 

"People have a right to access reproductive health care, including midwives, which is difficult enough as it is," said Murdock.

"This threatens the growth of our profession. It threatens franco-Ontarians, who cannot access French-speaking midwives." 

Another protester, Casey Lalonde, said what's happening at Laurentian is wrong.

"[I heard] that some of my favourite professors from the university were terminated on Zoom, including one prof who's been teaching there for 53 years," she said.

"To lose somebody like that, it's going to affect the quality of the program. I just can't believe that the university would treat its faculty that way. I think there's going to be negative ramifications for Sudbury and for all of northern Ontario with all of this."

For Casey Lalonde, who took part in Friday's downtown rally, access to education in northern areas is a big issue. (Sam Juric/CBC)

Lalonde is hoping for a miracle to get things turned around at the school.

"There's going to be a lot of people who are rethinking their decision to enrol in Laurentian this coming fall and in the future. We're going to see a worse out-migration of youth from Sudbury and our local economy is going to be negatively affected."

The cuts will also impact the city's culture too, she noted.

"A university contributes so much to the city and to the community, and we're going to lose so many important things."

Recipient renounces honorary doctorate

Beyond the rally, there have been other voices of disdain from the Laurentian community.

Jean-Marc Dalpé, a recipient of an honorary degree from the university, said he's renouncing the doctorate.

The francophone author, poet and playwright said he doesn't agree with the decisions the university is making.

"All of this was just too much for me personally, so I wanted to make a gesture in solidarity with the teachers and the students that have lost so much," said Dalpé. 

He said he was honoured when he first received the honorary degree about 20 years ago, but he's upset with all the cuts, in particular, to French-language programs.

In a letter to university president Robert Haché, Dalpé is calling for an investigation to determine the real causes of the financial chaos at Laurentian. 

Jean Marc Dalpé, a francophone author, poet and playwright, is calling for an investigation to determine the real causes of the financial chaos at Laurentian University. 'The resistance is only just beginning,' he says in a letter to university president Robert Haché. (Radio-Canada)

Court challenge filed 

In other news, the president of Thorneloe University, also in Sudbury, has filed a court challenge of Laurentian's decision to cut ties with its federated universities.

Laurentian announced April 1 it would retain funding that would normally flow to Thorneloe and Huntington Universities and the University of Sudbury under its federation agreements.

Thorneloe president John Gibaut said it's a complicated relationship, but what the school disputes fundamentally "is the capacity of Laurentian to unilaterally terminate a common agreement."

Gibaut said he doesn't believe Laurentian will benefit financially by cutting ties with its federated partners.

Huntington University has negotiated terms to end the agreement, which includes Laurentian acquiring its online gerontology program.

It's not clear where University of Sudbury stands at the moment.

Kornel Zathureczky, an associate prof at Laurentian University, took part in Friday's rally with his daughters Justine and Eva. Zathureczky says he's fighting for continued access to French-language education in the north. (Sam Juric/CBC)

Proposed Indigenous program questioned

But an assistant professor in the Indigenous studies program at the University of Sudbury said a new Indigenous Perspectives program proposed by Laurentian is not a suitable replacement for what has been terminated. The program is yet to be structured and developed for approval by University of Sudbury's senate. 

Tara Beeds said there's no guarantee a new Indigenous perspectives program will be led by Indigenous scholars, or provide similar content to the University of Sudbury program. 

"Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous nations have a right to have our education and our people represented properly," she said.

"And in order to do that, you have to put the time and the energy in. Indigenous studies is a discipline."

Federal politicians weigh in

Adding to the voices condemning the dismantling of Laurentian is NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who called for the federal government to step in with financial support.

"We need to immediately provide some supports so we don't see these devastating cuts. And we can figure out what is the right model for long-term sustainability," he said during a Friday news conference held virtually.

"But in a crisis, you've got to stop the bleeding. And right now we've got to stop the bleeding; we've got to save the university."

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government is waiting to see what steps the Ontario government will take regarding Laurentian before offering any support.