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The student centre on the Laurentian University campus on Feb. 1, 2021.

Gino Donato/The Globe and Mail

The federal government says it is willing to provide funds to assist financially troubled Laurentian University and is in discussions with the Ontario government about how best to support French-language postsecondary education in the province.

Official Languages Minister Mélanie Joly said she is very concerned by the massive cuts to staff and programs at Laurentian as it goes through an insolvency process controlled by the courts and intended for private-sector corporations.

Ms. Joly said it remains to be seen how the provincial government, which has jurisdiction over colleges and universities, will respond once the insolvency proceedings are complete, but she has been meeting with her provincial counterparts.

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“We are at the table and we are willing to help,” Ms. Joly said. “We need to act because it’s the future of having a bilingual country.”

For the moment, the province is saying very little about Laurentian as the matter is dealt with under the Companies Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA). But the federal minister said Ottawa is committing tens of millions of dollars for French-language postsecondary instruction across the country, and keeping a close eye on developments at Laurentian.

Laurentian is officially a bilingual university and roughly one-third of its students are francophone, which is why the federal government takes a particular interest in its fate.

Ontario to make two new universities following Laurentian’s financial troubles

Laurentian University staff agree to pay cut in new collective agreement

Earlier this month, the Sudbury-based university eliminated 110 tenured teaching positions and cut nearly 70 programs in an attempt to reduce costs. Laurentian had run up deficits for several years and had some long-term construction debt before it announced in February that it was weeks from being unable to meet payroll. The university even spent money earmarked for research on day-to-day operations.

Laurentian is expected to learn later this week whether it can secure another round of financing to continue operating beyond the end of April. The university has said it will offer alternatives to those students whose programs have been eliminated and it hopes that the overall student experience will be only minimally affected by its financial difficulties.

The recent federal budget includes more than $120-million over three years for minority official-language education in postsecondary institutions across Canada.

Ms. Joly said the CCAA process was never intended for public institutions, and poses particular dangers because it doesn’t take into account the need to protect the rights of linguistic minorities. One of her Liberal colleagues, Sudbury MP Paul Lefebvre, has introduced a private member’s bill that would prevent the use of the CCAA for public institutions. Very few private member’s bills become law, however.

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Ms. Joly said she sees three possible scenarios for the future of Laurentian.

It could remain a bilingual university after the restructuring, in which case there may be a need for further funding and support to ensure a sufficient level of French-language instruction.

Or, as some in the community are advocating, a new French institution could be established at the University of Sudbury, one of Laurentian’s federated universities whose ties to the larger school were severed during the insolvency process.

A third possibility would be to work with the newly created Université de l’Ontario Francais (UOF) in Toronto to create another node in a network of French universities similar to the University of Quebec model, Ms. Joly said.

The federal and provincial governments together are funding $126-million for the first eight years of UOF’s operations.

“Ultimately we want the consensus of the community and these are the three options that are now being discussed,” Ms. Joly said.

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Ms. Joly said revenue problems in postsecondary institutions across the country pose problems for minority-language education. She said the federal government intends to use the money promised in the 2021 budget not to merely paper over funding shortfalls but to provide incentives that will generate further investments from institutions and provincial governments.

“If the new generation is not able to pursue their schooling in regions of the country where they were brought up, bit by bit we will participate in the assimilation of francophones in this country,” Ms. Joly said.

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