Ontario says it welcomed offer from federal government to help save French programs at Laurentian University

The Ontario government said Wednesday it is committed to French-language programs at Laurentian University and welcomes federal funding to help achieve that goal.

It also disputed claims from Mélanie Joly, federal Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages, who said Tuesday the province didn't respond to an offer to help.

"We have said from Day 1 that we are happy to work with the federal government to support French language and francophone education in Ontario," said a statement from Ross Romano, Minister of Colleges and Universities.

"We have worked collaboratively together on the establishment of Université de l'Ontario français, one of two independent institutions governed for and by francophones that our government has established. We also have met and agreed to work together in good-faith to try and address some of the issues faced at Laurentian University."

The province was responding to a Tuesday evening news release from Sudbury MP Paul Lefebvre, on behalf of Joly.

Joly said the federal government offered in January to help save French programs at the university, but the province didn't respond.

"Laurentian's decision to initiate judicial oversight restructuring proceedings under the Creditors Arrangement Act came as a surprise, not only to the community, but also to the federal government given Minister Joly's previous offer to negotiate with the province," the release said.

But provincial officials said Romano did respond to Joly, writing two letters in April welcoming federal assistance.

"We welcome a robust conversation as to any investments the federal government can provide," Romano wrote in a letter to Joly dated April 16. "We would be open to a discussion on how together we can best support Ontario's post-secondary institutions so that they can continue to be a strong voice and beacon for francophones across Ontario and particularly northern Ontario's Franco-Ontarian communities."

In the second letter, dated April 20, Romano asked Joly whether the federal government would provide funds for Laurentian once it emerges from insolvency under the Companies' Creditor Arrangement Act (CCAA).

Romano said the province and the federal government provided $150 million for Algoma Steel when it emerged from insolvency.

"I believe strongly Ontarians expect our two levels of government to collaborate on Laurentian University, as well," he wrote.

"I respectfully ask that the federal government clarify its position on whether or not you are prepared to support Laurentian University when they emerge from CCAA proceedings."

On Wednesday, Lefebvre clarified that the province didn't respond to Joly's offer until after Feb. 1, when it was too late because the school had declared insolvency.

Painful process

He said the federal government is committed to helping Laurentian and that is where it is focused. The whole process has been painful, he added.

"It certainly has been frustrating," Lefebvre said. "I have friends who lost jobs. Now we're focused on how do we get Laurentian University on track?"

In response, the minister's office said Wednesday afternoon they didn't receive any communication from Joly until April.

"The ministry did not receive any communications from Minister Joly’s office or the federal government with respect to Laurentian University in January 2021," the minister's office said in a statement.

"The first formal communication we did receive was on April 13, after the prime minister had stated Minister Joly had been in contact with her provincial counterpart. Staff representatives first met on April 14. Ministry officials have met three times on this matter in 2021, but all were after Laurentian U entered CCAA on Feb. 1."

In late 2020, before declaring insolvency, Laurentian University asked the province for about $100 million, as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the school into a financial crisis. The province offered about $12 million as a bridge, saying more in-depth study would need to be completed before it could consider such a large amount.

But with loans and long-term liabilities totalling close to $300 million, and years of operating deficits masked by using funds earmarked for bursaries and research, LU President Robert Hache declared the school insolvent.