Laurentian neglected obligations under French Language Services Act, says language commissioner (CTV)

March 31, 2022

31 March 2022

A new report says Laurentian University, the Ministry of Francophone Affairs and the Ministry of Colleges and Universities neglected their obligations under the law when French language programs were cut.

Ian Campbell
March 31, 2022
A new report says Laurentian University, the Ministry of Francophone Affairs and the Ministry of Colleges and Universities neglected their obligations under the law when French language programs were cut.

When the university declared insolvency last February, it led to massive program cuts. Among the 72 programs the university eliminated, 28 were in French, prompting an investigation by Kelly Burke, Ontario's French language services commissioner.

"Laurentian has obligations under the French Language Services Act, it's required to offer some of its services in French," said Burke during a Thursday morning news conference.

"When (LU) announced it was cutting 28 programs, I deemed it essential to investigate without delay."

On Thursday, Burke released her report, 'Strengthening the Designation: A Collaborative Effort,' in which she found the ministries also failed to fulfill their obligations.

"We heard stories of students who had to transfer to other facilities to continue their programs," she said.

"Students have had to transfer to other institutions where the program is no longer offered in French."

Burke said Laurentian received its designation as a bilingual university in 2014. When program cuts were made, she said the university failed to consult either ministry. And, she said, LU claimed it was required to offer degrees, not specific programs, as part of its designation.

"The wording has created a great deal of confusion in the eyes of the public over what is designated, the programs or the degrees," said Burke.

"According to the university, it's the degrees and not the programming. That's a narrow interpretation in my view. I believe this interpretation was against the spirit of the law."

Her report makes 19 recommendations to avoid communication gaps, to improve planning and to make sure something like this never happens again.

"I was shocked, upset as a former student myself, if I had to face these challenges similar to those students at Laurentian University," Burke said.

"It's surprising that they had to take these decisions that forced them to relocate to other areas, for example, for a student who only had to complete two courses to complete their degree. They had to find ways to complete those courses in English sometimes, outside of Sudbury, other regions, not knowing that the program would be the same as the program they initially enrolled in."

The investigation included roughly 40 interviews and reviewed documents from the university and the ministries, all of whom cooperated with the investigation.

"The university no longer trains Francophone graduates who go on to work in midwifery in French and provide services in French," she writes in her report.

"I consider it crucial that the university analyze the impact of such a decision on its obligations under its designation."


Province responds

CTV News reached out to Laurentian University for comment on Burke's report. They send us this statement:

"Laurentian’s bilingual mandate is core to this University's identity and we are fully committed to continuing to attract students who wish to study in French by offering a comprehensive suite of programs leading to degrees that are relevant to them, learning important life and work skills that employers value.

"We welcome the French Language Services Commissioner’s report and recommendations and look forward to working with the Ministry of Colleges and Universities (MCU) and the Ministry of Francophone Affairs (MFA) to implement the recommendations as we work to provide the best education possible for students in our French language programs.

"Laurentian is proud to be the first bilingual university in Ontario to have been granted a designation under the French Language Services Act. We are also proud of the fact that enrolment in Laurentian’s French-language programs has steadily increased, and currently represents approximately 20% of our student population.

"While reducing both English and French-language academic program offerings was a difficult but necessary step as part of Laurentian’s comprehensive restructuring, we are confident our current academic programming better aligns with student demand and will help to ensure financial sustainability for years to come."


Report not a surprise

The report didn't come as a surprise to Simon Paquette, president of Laurentian's Association des étudiantes et étudiant francophones (AEF).

The AEF did a survey last year that asked how many were affected by the cuts at Laurentian University, and roughly a third answered yes. The response rate was about 10 per cent.

It also found four out of every five francophone students would like their courses entirely in French, if possible.

"When I skimmed over it and looked at all of the recommendations, I would say that I absolutely agree with all of it," said Paquette, a student himself.

"Although some solutions are being given, some of us are being forced to take courses in English just to finish what we came here to do."

Denis Constantineau is a spokesperson for the Northern Ontario Coalition for a French-language University.

He told CTV News, his son was a graduate of French programs at Laurentian University. If he were to enter university today, he would have had to leave Sudbury to get his education elsewhere.

"There is a strong message in the commissioner's report but it confirms what we've been saying since the outset, as a bilingual institution, Laurentian hasn't been looking out for the interests of the francophone community," said Constantineau.

"The damage is done, we can't go back in time and correct the problems at Laurentian, the students are gone, the professors are gone and the community has suffered the losses it is going to suffer," he said. "What we can hope is these recommendations will keep this from happening again so people can take seriously their responsibilities."

He adds Laurentian University has lost the privilege of speaking on behalf of the Francophone community and the community needs a strong French-language university to stand alongside it.

Nickel Belt MPP France Gélinas said a lot of young people came to her office at the time of the cuts. She referred them all to the Ombudsman.

"It showed the ministry did nothing to meet the French language designation," Gélinas said.

"Laurentian was a French-language designated university. There's a law they have to follow and no one bothered to look to see if they were in contravention of the law."

'It was very reactive'

Gélinas said the Ministry of Francophone Affairs didn't get involved until it was too late and many students had already lost out on their opportunities.

"It was very reactive, the school and the ministries," she said. "Let's wait until the disaster happens and hide behind the CCAA and the consequences. (Burke) gives many examples of those who had come to us and now have been made public. You're two courses away from finishing with a university degree and now you find yourself with nothing."

Gélinas said as things stand now, there is only one program available to students who want to graduate with a French-language education at Laurentian.

"That's it, that's all," she said. "So that means for the francophone youth who are ready to enter university, they went to kindergarten in French, they did all of their elementary school, secondary school, all of this they were able to do in French."

"Same thing, many of them were able to do a college degree at (College) Boréal and they want to be able to continue their education, but unless you want this one program left at Laurentian, you're going to have to go out of town," added Gélinas.

CTV News also reached out to Minister of Francophone Affairs Caroline Mulroney and Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop for comment. Later in the day, we received this statement:

"The Government of Ontario recognizes the exceptional contribution of the Francophone community to the social, cultural and economic development of the province. We share with the Commissioner a strong desire to improve access to quality government services in French for the Francophone community and will continue to work with her on these files. That is why we modernized the French Language Services Act for the first time since its adoption in 1986 and added the principle of active offer as well as accountability and transparency measures.

"Laurentian University 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. Our government will continue to support Ontario's Francophone students with skills development and access to education and training in French needed for rewarding careers that meet labour market demands."