Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas said the local Francophone community “exploded with joy” upon hearing the news, but the University of Sudbury still has a lot to figure out before becoming an independent French-language institution.
As one of the founding members of the Laurentian Federation, the university does not in itself have degree-granting authority, and its religious affiliation is a barrier to securing provincial funding.
The university administration, however, is “fighting to ensure that Francophones continue their post-secondary studies in French” amid Laurentian’s insolvency fiasco with the hopes of becoming Ontario’s second French-language university.
“A big step has just been taken by the University of Sudbury. We listened to the community and took action,” said Pierre Riopel, president of the Board of Regents during a virtual press conference on Friday.
“(Thursday), the Board of Regents adopted a resolution proposing that the University of Sudbury return to its Francophone roots by becoming by, for, and with Francophones.”
The announcement was made in partnership with the Assembly of the Francophonie in Ontario (AFO) on March 12. AFO President Carol Jolin said that he is proud to support this initiative, but while this is an important step forward, the game is not over yet.
“We are reaching out to our provincial and federal government partners to support the University of Sudbury in making these aspirations a reality,” he said.
Because Laurentian University is in the process of filing for protection under the Companies Creditors’ Arrangement Act after declaring insolvency on Feb. 1, the University of Sudbury said it is restricted as to what information its can disclose at this time due to ongoing court proceedings.
“We aren’t able to do interviews at this time. There is still much to nail down and we look forward to conversations and collaboration with varied partners to establish the next steps,” said U of S communications officer Marianne Denis-Séguin.
The Ministry of Colleges and Universities said that it has not yet received a request from the university to move forward with this proposal.
“Generally speaking, any change to a university name or degree-granting authority would require a formal request to the ministry from the university,” said a ministry spokesperson.
“It would be reviewed based on expert advice of the Postsecondary Education Quality Assessment Board to ensure that the interest of Ontario taxpayers and students are protected.”
To be approved, U of S would have to obtain ministerial consent to offer degrees and be recognized for funding by the ministry.
U of S entered into the Laurentian Federation as a founding member in 1960, and while it enjoyed degree-granting authority before this date, any programs, courses, majors and minors taken there today are credited towards a Laurentian University degree.
It currently offers programs and courses in philosophy, religious studies, folklore and études journalistiques, and it also has the second-oldest Indigenous studies program in Canada.
The university’s Indigenous studies and French-language programming are part of Laurentian University’s claim to fame.
“Laurentian is Canada’s only university with a tricultural mandate, offering a university experience in English and French with a comprehensive approach to Indigenous education,” said a release issued by Laurentian on March 16.
If U of S successfully breaks rank with Laurentian University, the fate of this tricultural mandate is uncertain.
Laurentian, however, said that it remains committed to being “a shining beacon” of French-language education as the university goes through the restructuring process.
“We are committed to the future of Laurentian as a university where French-language programming and teaching is valued, and our bilingual character celebrated. This objective will continue throughout our restructuring under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act,” said the release.
“Laurentian University is nurturing the next generation of young Francophone leaders that our communities need and deserve. We look forward to serving the Francophone population for many years to come, working in continuing partnerships with our major provincial’s stakeholders including the 12 francophone school boards, the two French-language colleges, the French-language division of the Ministry of Education and our many community partners.”
At a meeting of the Laurentian senate last week, U of S President John Meehan said that he is eager to see the institution’s Indigenous and French-language programming survive.
A decision was made to make both of U of S’s two charters available to the communities that it serves.
“The department of Indigenous studies was started in 1975 at the University of Sudbury,” he said. “We have to know our history to know who we are and to know where we are going, and the history of our federation is connected to our community — Indigenous, francophone, anglophone and many other communities, but those are core communities.”
To move forward with its plan to become an independent Francophone institution, however, the university will have to break with tradition.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Colleges and Universities said in a statement that for a federated institution to operate independently from a publicly assisted university, it must relinquish its ties to the church and establish itself as a secular institution.
“The Ontario government has a longstanding policy of not providing operating or capital funding support for religious post-secondary institutions, with some limited exceptions,” said the ministry.
U of S was founded as the Collège du Sacré-Coeur in 1913, according to its website.
“The University of Sudbury is a bilingual university based in the tradition of its founding Jesuit Fathers, and committed to promoting the traditions and culture of the Indigenous people,” it said.
“Inspired by the Jesuit philosophy of education (the formation of the whole person in service to community), the University of Sudbury also has a special commitment to community engagement and service to others.”
The university touched briefly on this subject during their virtual press conference on March 12, and Denis-Séguin said it is prepared to become a secular institution.
“Although the U of S was founded by the Jesuits and we've long been rooted in this tradition, the U of S does not intend to remain confessional,” she said.
Sudbury MPP Jamie West said that he supports French-language education, but he cautions that this transition could be a long way off.
“French-language education is important. There’s a mandate to be able to be educated in French from kindergarten all the way to postsecondary, and I think it’s an important move,” he said.
“I don’t want it to detract too much from what’s happening at Laurentian. I think there’s going to be some time between this announcement and the university being successful in the future. In the interim, we still have to ensure that we keep those courses in the north and we save those jobs.”
On the other hand, Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas, a long-time supporter and advocate for French-language postsecondary education, was encouraged by the news.
She said that Francophones should be able to attend a French university no matter where they live in Ontario.
“I understand the circumstances that have led them to this, but I would say this news was very well-received by the French community. Out of adversity and out of a crisis, sometimes new things develop,” she said.
“It is the Franco-Ontarian community who reached out to the University of Sudbury asking for a French-language institution. Is this the right time to make a move like this? It’s certainly not the right government. The university will need the support of the provincial government to succeed, and this government has not been kind to Franco-Ontarians. I say, only time will tell.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.
Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star