Laurentian president says school was 'transparent' about economic challenges they faced

Laurentian University President Robert Haché found himself on the hot-seat once again Thursday afternoon as he testified virtually in front of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages.

While the focus was on the cutting of French-language programs at the university, many questions centred on who knew what and when before LU declared insolvency Feb. 1.

Sudbury MP Paul Lefebvre said Haché called him and Nickel Belt MP Marc Serré to talk about what was happening in December.

"That was the first you told us about the financial difficulties, we said, I said, the federal government could provide support for the official languages program, is that not true?" Lefebvre asked.

"Did I also not say that I communicated with Minister (Melanie) Joly's office to see what we could do because, as you know, and as we said last Tuesday, the official languages program works through a transfer, a federal transfer payment but it does get delivered by the province so we can work together to move this forward, did I not say that?"

"Yes, that's what I recollect," said Haché.

"I also told you about the Aboriginal languages program that the federal government had put forward and Laurentian University had not applied, at least not the first component and you were to follow up with Canadian Heritage, is that not true?" asked Lefebvre.

"Yes, it is," said Haché.

Lefebvre also pressed Haché about which level of government is responsible for funding matters and jurisdiction. Haché replied that it was the province.

But it was the questions from Timmins-James Bay NDP Charlie Angus that seemed to focus around funding for the institution that raised more questions than answers

"You said there were a number of meetings between the provincial and federal government in the lead up to that (the CCAA creditor protection process), so in your meetings with the federal government did you ask for financial help or support in order to avoid having to go into bankruptcy?" asked Angus.

"We did have a number of meetings in the last year leading up in both the federal and provincial side," Haché replied.

"In all cases, we were quite transparent in the magnitude of our difficulties and the origin of our difficulties and we did make requests and ask if there was any way, in response to your specific question, ask if there were any possibilities that we could receive assistance from the federal government."

Angus pressed him further on the meetings he had with the local MPs, saying he was surprised that Lefebvre wasn't told about the extent of the financial difficulties until the end of December.

He asked Haché if Laurentian had made a specific request for funding.

"What surprised me was Madame Joly, the Minister of FedNor who represents economic development as well as official languages and the Franco-Ontarian community, saying if she had been told, she would have intervened and worked with the province. Do you think it might have been better to work with Madame Joly than the two local MPs because she said she would have acted?" asked Angus.

"Hindsight can be 20/20 and had we been more aggressive, more successful perhaps there might have been a change, but perhaps not," said Haché.

Serré continued the line of questioning where his colleague Lefebvre had left off.

"Laurentian University is such an important part of the community, all requests for funding have to go through the province," Serré asked.

"Yes, that's correct," said Haché.

Testimony at the Official Languages Committee continued for the next hour as parliamentarians heard from the francophone alliance in Sudbury calling for a French-language university, as well as the University of Sudbury's Pierre Riopel from the board of regents.

Joly said Tuesday her office learned of the troubles facing Laurentian University in January, after the meeting with Serré and Lefebvre.

Hache also testified there were a number of factors that contributed to the university's fiscal problems, including funding cuts from the province.

He couldn't quantify how much of the $150-million budget were federal contributions, but added a $10-million loan from the province would not have made a difference.