Laurentian University is the canary in educational coal mine. We will fight for it.

Speaker: Ms. May
Time: 14/04/2021 23:03:22
Context: Debate

Ms. Elizabeth May (Saanich—Gulf Islands, GP): Madam Speaker, it is an honour to join in on this debate this evening. I want to thank my colleagues in the New Democratic Party for bringing this forward as an emergency debate. I completely agree, this is an emergency. I am speaking to members from the traditional territories W_SÁNEC First Nations and raise my hands to them.

[Member spoke in SENĆOŦEN]

It is important tonight that we remember we are talking about a university that offers programs for anglophones, francophones and in indigenous languages.

I want to start at a broader level of post-secondary education in Canada in general in crisis and then focus in on Laurentian. I hope to be able to offer some useful suggestions.

Back in 2005, the last book was written by Jane Jacobs, one of Canada’s great minds. Dark Age Ahead was the title of her last book. She spoke of the threats to five major pillars of civilization and culture, and she said they were all under assault. The pillars were family, community, science, proper taxation and education.

Specifically, she spoke about post-secondary education. She said it was under assault because it was becoming a transaction. We were trading in education for the purposes of broadening our minds and exploring what we could be internally, finding out talents. We were trading education for something she described as certification. We pay our money and we get our ticket, so that young people were increasingly consumers, as Jane Jacobs explained, of a decreasingly impoverished intellectual experience with larger and larger classroom sized, and less and less contact between students and their professors.

It led to more insecurity around the finances of universities. We have seen a real trend where universities have to be beholden to large corporate enterprises, large corporations, some foreign, some Canadian, with chairs and this and that.

When I was teaching at Dalhousie University, it was very hard to see that the professors working on the threats to marine mammals from seismic testing would get far when Shell gave a lot of money to the university to run a chair in offshore oil and gas development. The money also tended to flow in ways that meant that the research that was produced by universities became proprietary. The information that was gleaned from academic pursuits had suddenly become the property of the corporations funding the universities. These trends are dangerous.

We have also had an increasingly large bureaucracy in universities often focused on fund raising. There are these trends toward raising money and what do wealthy people want? They want to give money so that the building is in their name. We do not see tenure track positions created with a big plaque on the name of the professor that says the wealthy person who gave them money so that professor has a tenure track position. The trends are not good and these apply right across Canada.

As I mentioned in an earlier question to the hon. member for London—Fanshawe, the federal government provides billions of dollars in federal and provincial transfers to provinces for universities and post-secondary, but we not track where those dollars actually go. The trend lines are not good and, as I said, Jane Jacobs pointed this all out in 2005.

We see some of those poorly paid workers in Canada or the exploited group of recent PhDs who do not ever really get a tenure track position, but teach part-time and are sessional lecturers. We see increasingly reduced opportunities for students, and increased tuition and increased student debt. I suggest that the whole pile of financial mistakes and failure to support post-secondary education adequately is a national crisis.

I want to turn now to Laurentian University which is tonight’s focus. Laurentian is in Sudbury, a wonderful community, and I have been very honoured to have given lectures at Laurentian University over the years. The community of Sudbury went from being described as a moonscape to being a green and sustainable place. Laurentian University and the research done there in places like the Cooperative Freshwater Ecology Unit are part of that story, so too is what has been happening with a francophone education and indigenous education.

My daughter’s friend Kristen Lavallee, a student at Laurentian, wrote this letter, which was published in the local newspaper, saying the people who made the financial mistakes that led to Laurentian being in bankruptcy protection need to be held accountable. These are Kristen’s words, because the students have been going through a terribly stressful time. She wrote:
We, as students, deserve to have clarity about our choices in order to continue our education. Laurentian University is a publicly funded institution which should be receiving the support of the provincial and federal governments. Instead staff, faculty and students are experiencing the brunt of the irresponsibility of a select few in administration.
It is important that we hold the people who are responsible for having caused the current fiscal chaos at Laurentian University accountable.
I also note that Senator Moncion has made it very clear that what we are talking about here are constitutionally enshrined rights and must be protected. She states, “Upholding these rights requires strong institutions. Canadian courts have long recognized the importance of maintaining strong institutions, protecting language and the culture of official language minority communities. Substantive equality requires it.”
Laurentian University’s situation is not unique. It reflects the continuing underfunding of post-secondary institutions that wholly or partially serve official-language minority communities across Canada. The case of Laurentian University is sounding the alarm, as is this underfunding that threatens the constitutional rights of communities. It is a very important point that we are not just talking about one small problem; this requires really creative out-of-the-box thinking for the federal government to take control of this and say it is sorry it applied corporate commercial insolvency protection in the case of a publicly funded university.
I also want to say in French that we now have a crisis affecting francophone minority communities in Ontario, but also across Canada. The elimination of education programs at Laurentian University, and in particular the treatment of francophone programs, is an attack against the vitality of the French language in minority communities. I want to say clearly that we must now do something and do it in a different way.
To protect this university, the federal government must say it is sorry to the province. It is provincial jurisdiction usually, but constitutionally protected rights are at risk.
Mismanagement of this university includes a mania for building. A spending spree is the proximate cause of its financial disaster of the moment. I agree with the students and the faculty association. I say to the students and faculty, the 110 fired professors of Laurentian University, that this is a wrong that members of Parliament understand is wrong and we want to fight for them.
We will demand that there be a special new paragraph drafted right now for the budget we will see on Monday to ensure the midwifery, indigenous language, environmental studies, philosophy and theatre programs at Laurentian University be resurrected and that it not go under. It is the canary in our educational coal mine. We will fight for it.