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Labour leaders weigh in on Laurentian: Fix post-secondary funding or LU won’t be the last insolvent school

By Jenny Lamothe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Leaders of several area labour unions didn’t mince words at a news conference today in response to recent events involving the Laurentian University insolvency and CCAA process.

D’Arcy Gauthier, Northern Ontario District representative with the Canada Employment and Immigration Union (CEIU), had a warning for the provincial government if it doesn’t step in to fix post-secondary education funding in Ontario.

“The greater labour community will grind this province to a halt until you have all been held accountable for your reckless and continuous attacks on education in Ontario,” Gauthier said. “Monday was a dark and bloody day (referring to April 12, the day termination notices were sent to Laurentian University faculty and staff). It’s a day that will live in infamy in this community. But it’s not our last day. We will continue to fight back and we will win. And if we don’t win, we will drag those responsible down with us.”

His counterpart with OPSEU said Premier Doug Ford and Training, Colleges and Universities Minister Ross Romano have thus far failed to act on Laurentian’s behalf.  

“I just want to point out a lot has been said around the media, about Mr. Romano and Mr. Ford failing to act,” said Tara Maszczakiewicz, regional vice president for OPSEU/SEFPO. “So, let’s be real clear about this: Mr. Romano and Mr. Ford have indeed acted. They chose to allow Laurentian to enter into the company’s credit arrangement act (CCAA), an unprecedented action for a public sector institution.”

She said that “this (provincial) government is hiding behind the company’s creditor arrangement act legislation from the 1930s that was meant for insolvent companies. It was never intended to be used as a broad brush to deal with public sector institutions.” 

“Mr. Ford and Mr. Romano choose to view a public post-secondary institution as a business. They are putting the first nail in the coffin of post-secondary education in Ontario.”

Gauthier, added that what is happening is disproportionately impacting French and Indigenous learners.

“I am appalled at what’s happening. I’m appalled that Franco-Ontarians are again being shoved to the side as a type of nuisance. I’m appalled that Indigenous communities and Indigenous programs are being tossed aside again as a type of nuisance.

“For far too long, these groups have been the whipping post in this country and especially in this province as we try to carve out a place where we can feel a sense of belonging,” he said.

In a release prior to the news conference, Mike Bellerose, president of the Sudbury and District Labour Council and CUPE Local 4705 said what is happening at Laurentian shouldn’t be considered a one-off — funding for post-secondary needs to change, he said.

“Laurentian is not alone in this crisis. The broken funding model for post-secondary education, particularly in Ontario, but also across Canada, has placed many other universities on a ‘watch list’ with mounting debt and financial pressures, due to declining public investment.”

Calling for immediate and long-term solutions to the crisis that involved the loss of more than 100 faculty and more than 40 staff members (according to recent figures), the release detailed the groups’ demands:

Emergency stabilization funds for post-secondary institutions to address the rising costs and revenue losses associated with the Covid-19 pandemic;

A federal government commitment to uphold Francophone and Indigenous programs at Laurentian and to make whole all lost tri-council research dollars;

A new federal Post-Secondary Education Act that provides post-secondary education for all Canadians as a public good – like health care – with the eventual elimination of tuition fees for students attending university, college and apprenticeship programs, and;

CCAA reform that immediately removes public-sector institutions from the federal legislation.

Bellerose added there have been “tens of millions of dollars lost to lawyer’s fees,” but additionally, “tens of millions of public dollars in research funds, Francophone and Indigenous program funds and university donations appear to have been lost,” he said.

All three also spoke to the effects this will have on the future of education. 

“Their choices and actions are devastating post-secondary education in the North,” said Maszczakiewicz.

“Chronic underfunding, combined with tuition costs, Laurentian University might be the first university in this situation, but without intervention, it is not going to be the last. We need the federal and provincial governments to correct the systemic funding issues with public post-secondary education, and also change the legislation to protect our public sector institutions from dismantlement by the CCAA.”

Jenny Lamothe is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com. She covers the Black, Indigenous, immigrant and Francophone communities.

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