Ontario Legislature approves rare warrant for Laurentian University financial documents

Laurentian University has said a motion for a “Speaker’s warrant” from the Legislative Assembly of Ontario to obtain documents related to its insolvency, interferes with an ongoing court process.

A Speaker's warrant is a rarely used tool that can compel the release of sensitive documents

The entrance to Sudbury's Laurentian University. The university has said a proposed warrant to obtain privileged financial documents would interfere with an ongoing case in the courts. (Yvon Theriault/Radio-Canada)

The Ontario Legislature passed a motion Thursday afternoon to issue a Speaker's warrant that would force Laurentian University to hand over documents related to its insolvency.

During the debate in the legislature, Government House Leader Paul Calandra said the Sudbury university's "utter disrespect for Parliament and the people of Ontario is shameful, and we will not let it stand."

With the warrant, Laurentian will need to give the Standing Committee on Public Accounts documents, including privileged information, related to its insolvency in February. 

Aurora—Oak Ridges—Richmond Hill MPP Michael Parsa, a member of the committee, said Laurentian was given many opportunities to comply with requests for documents, and challenged the committee numerous times.

"Suffice it to say the committee gave Laurentian every opportunity to explain themselves and to comply" he said.

Parsa said the committee received a "deeply concerning" response from Laurentian on Nov. 10, in which the university said it did not have to hand over documents subject to solicitor-client privilege to an "entity that is not part of government."

But Parsa said Parliament is the "highest court in the land" and that there is past precedent for compelling documents that fall under solicitor-client privilege. 

Sudbury MPP Jamie West said he was saddened by the news of Laurentian's insolvency, and shared stories from some of the 200 workers who lost their jobs when the university cut more than 30 programs in April.

He supported the motion for a warrant to obtain the university's documents. 

Nickel Belt MPP France Gélinas, also called for her colleagues to support the motion. 

"We did not want to come here, but today we're left with no choice but to ask each MPP in this house to vote in favour of a warrant." 

Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk speaks during a press conference at Queens Park. She has called for Laurentian University to provide her office with privileged documents related to its insolvency in February. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press)

The Speaker's warrant follows a legal battle between Laurentian and Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, who has requested the university's privileged documents for a value-for-money audit.

Lysyk has argued Laurentian has been the least transparent institution she has dealt with during her time as auditor general.

In a court hearing on Monday, an Ontario Superior Court judge heard from both sides and reserved his decision as to whether Lysyk should have access to Laurentian's privileged documents.

Laurentian reaction

Prior to Thursday's vote Laurentian University said a motion for a Speaker's warrant would interfere with an ongoing court process.

In a written statement, Laurentian said it was "gravely concerned" by the standing committee's motion on Wednesday.

The statement said the warrant would "pre-empt and interfere with an existing court process."

"Further, the University is gravely concerned that compliance with a warrant would put it, and its officers, directors, and employees, in contempt of a court order," the statement said.

Laurentian has argued the decision regarding access to its privileged documents should be left to the courts. 

The university has also said it has collaborated with Lysyk and her office.

"The University has authorized and encouraged all staff to participate in interviews with the Auditor General of Ontario," the statement said. 

"We have also granted her office direct access to our entire financial database, enrollment system, as well as extensive non-privileged documentation. The provision of documents to the Auditor General is ongoing and will provide the Auditor General with the information she needs to perform her audit."

What is a Speaker's warrant?

Graham White, a retired professor of political science with the University of Toronto, said Speaker's warrants are a rarely used tool in the legislative toolbox. 

"The basic idea is that the Legislature is entitled to ask for any documents it wants and should be given them," White said. "Now there's lots of grey areas about cabinet documents and so on, but that's not the issue here (with Laurentian)."

White previously worked in the Clerk's Office at the Ontario Legislature, and said he worked for a committee that pushed forward a motion for a Speaker's warrant.

"Bottom line is if the Legislature or the committee insists, then people simply have to give it up," he said.

As for whether or not a Speaker's warrant would interfere with the courts. White said the courts will generally defer to the Legislature in such cases.

"Generally speaking, the courts will stay out of it if. Parliament in Ottawa, or provincial legislature says this is what we're doing," he said.

"Usually, courts will defer to the principle of parliamentary supremacy." 


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