Joel Belliveau, a historian and now former associate professor in Histoire at Laurentian University, woke up Monday to a text message from a colleague, telling him to check his email.
Though Belliveau’s role with the Regroupement des professeurs(es) francophones de l'Université Laurentienne (RPF), an independent organization that represents more than 110 Francophone and Francophile professors and lecturers, has allowed him more information than most, much was to be kept confidential.
The inklings that something terrible was in store came after a Laurentian University senate meeting last week – part of the CCAA process – but participants were told that information shared in that meeting was classified, under punishment of contempt of court.
But even with a bit of information, he didn’t expect the email he received.
“The email called me to an emergency Zoom meeting at 9:30 a.m., with no other information,” Belliveau told Sudbury.com. “I clicked on the Zoom link, we had a brief message from the provost, the vice-president academic (Dr. Marie-Josée Berger). She read a little piece of paper. It lasted about a minute and 15 seconds, I'd say. She looked emotional, but she didn't look at us.”
Then Belliveau, and the 17 other professors and one staff member who were on the Zoom call, were left to themselves.
“She left the meeting after that, leaving us in the hands of HR people that were hired for the job. She did not take questions.”
Belliveau said a union representative was on the video call as well.
“She couldn't say much,” he said. “But she told us that there were six or seven other similar meetings that were going to be happening throughout the day.”
By the end of the day on April 12, Laurentian University had cut four masters programs and 24 undergraduate French-language programs (you can see the full list below.)
“There was a betrayal yesterday,” said Belliveau Tuesday. “One thing I saw a lot on people's social media accounts was ‘Today, I lost ‘my’ Laurentian.’ It was a pillar of the Francophone community, too, L’AEF (Association des étudiantes et étudiants francophones à l’Université Laurentienne), it was the place where La Nuit sur L’etang was created. That was where so many events took place.”
Belliveau said that for many Francophone people in Sudbury, and in Northern Ontario, the fight for identity is intertwined with Laurentian’s Francophone programs.
“There's kind of this counter-cultural phenomenon from the ’70s and ’80s that still kind of lives on. That's what runs deep. They were mourning that yesterday, and I think it’s their right to mourn.”
It will also be an enormous blow to the population of Sudbury, said Laurentian University Faculty Association secretary-treasurer Jean-Charles Cachon.
“The general impact is that we’re going to see an exodus of the youth that is going to increase considerably over the next few years,” he said. “It’s going to force a number of young people to go study down south.”
Simply studying in one place for four or five years adds to the chances that the student will make a life for themselves there, will find work, friends and potentially a permanent home. He notes the current high demand for bilingual workers in Southern Ontario.
“All these kids will find jobs very quickly, very easily,” said Cachon. “They already find jobs easily in the North. They will find jobs more easily in the south as demand for multilingual people increases.”
For a region that is consistently in search of new residents, it could be said that an “exodus,” of young people could impact this need directly.
Though the information is coming out to everyone at the same time, in drips, drabs, emails and Zoom calls, this is fomenting a movement that has been in place for some time. It is not only an initiative that RPF has spoken to for many of its 30 year existence, but an idea that became more prescient as the news from Laurentian began to filter out.
In a RPF release from March 23 of this year, Belliveau is quoted saying, “According to our members, governance by, for and with Francophones, which has been asked for decades, is more necessary than ever to resolve the recurring impasse demonstrated by the 60-year history of the institution.”
Another spokesperson for the group, Denis Hurtubise, said, “Jobs could be lost at all levels, students could be left out in the cold and disciplines could disappear from the region, depriving its young people of the opportunity to study in the North. Autonomy would allow us to rebuild French-language university education based on the needs of the Francophone community and thus protect the distinctiveness of the French fact on campus."
It is this autonomy that will move the Francophone population of Sudbury, of Northern Ontario, to push for their identity, a school in their own language, a place where their culture is central, rather than an afterthought.
And to do so, yet again.
But as Belliveau said in a recent Facebook post, “Que vive le projet de l'Université de Sudbury. Que vive l'Université Libre du Nouvel-Ontario!”
The French-language programs that have been cut are:
Jenny Lamothe is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com. She covers the Black, Indigenous, immigrant and Francophone communities.
Jenny Lamothe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sudbury.com