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The main entrance to the Laurentian University campus in Sudbury, Ont., on Feb. 1, 2021.

Gino Donato/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government moved to grant independence to a medical school and a francophone university in Northern Ontario on Thursday, just days after more than 100 faculty positions and nearly 70 programs were eliminated at Laurentian University.

One of the universities currently involved with the medical school seemed taken by surprise, and said it was not consulted.

The Progressive Conservative government introduced legislation to make the Northern Ontario School of Medicine and Hearst University independent, stand-alone, degree-granting universities. At the moment both are affiliated with Laurentian University in Sudbury, which is in the midst of insolvency and eliminated 110 faculty positions and nearly 70 programs earlier this week.

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The Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM), however, is also in partnership with Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. The school, opened in 2005, specializes in providing training in rural and family medicine in northern settings for about 460 students.

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On Thursday afternoon, shortly after the government announced that NOSM had been placed on a path to independence, Lakehead University president Moira McPherson released a statement saying the university was not consulted and is very concerned about the move’s implications.

“The Northern Ontario School of Medicine is an integral part of Lakehead University and our community,” Dr. McPherson said. “We are concerned by today’s news, particularly in light of the absence of any consultation with the university. We are in the process of reviewing this decision and determining its impacts.”

The Ontario government has been criticized this week by members of the francophone community for allowing Laurentian to severely reduce its French offerings. An emergency debate was held in the House of Commons on Wednesday on the Laurentian situation that touched on the crucial role the university plays for French-speaking people in Ontario. Hearst, which has about 160 full time students, is northwest of Sudbury and also has campuses in Timmins and Kapuskasing. It has been affiliated with Laurentian since 1963.

Under the proposed legislation, Hearst and NOSM would be set on a path toward independent governance and administration and their own degree-granting powers. The institutions would also be able to introduce new programs and offer them in other Ontario communities, the government said.

“NOSM and Hearst provide specialized and important educational opportunities in Northeastern Ontario,” said Ross Romano, Minister of Colleges and Universities. “They are ready to take the next step in their development and maturity as institutions. This new independence will ensure that each institution has the autonomy to grow in ways that more effectively support the access to quality education for students and communities in the region.”

The minister did not specifically address the concerns raised by Lakehead University’s president, but spokesman Scott Clark said the government would work with all the institutions involved to support the transition.

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In a statement, NOSM president Sarita Verma said she could not comment on the government’s proposed legislation due to the insolvency proceedings involving Laurentian University.

Laurentian filed for creditor protection in February. It had run deficits for several years, piled on debt to construct new buildings, and had even spent grant money earmarked for research.

It is the first Canadian publicly funded university to restructure under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act.

On Thursday, Laurentian president Robert Haché said the university had come through a number of difficult steps to ensure its survival, referring to a massive reduction in tenured teaching staff and an across-the-board wage cut for remaining employees.

He said the university will now seek an additional loan to continue operating beyond the end of April and implement a plan for long-term sustainability.

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