The president of Laurentian University was called to a House of Commons committee Tuesday to discuss Indigenous midwifery education, but faced pointed questions about the school’s finances and its staff and program cuts.
Northern Ontario MPs on the standing committee on the status of women wanted to hear more from Robert Haché on how the university ended up in creditor protection, leading to the layoff of over 100 staff.
In the virtual meeting, Charlie Angus, New Democrat representing Timmins-James Bay, wanted to know how Haché went from telling students last spring that the university was close, to balancing its budget and then scrapping dozens of programs less than a year later.
“You’re not telling us something here. Were you not aware that debt was there or were you using this process for other reasons?” Angus asked.
Haché replied: “Well, simply it was required that we have a balanced budget. At that point, Laurentian had no additional capacity to take on additional debt.”
He said that for years, Laurentian had the “poorest financial health of any university in the province” and staff “worked very hard” before the pandemic to meet the “projected budget,” but then post-COVID, it “simply had no more room.”
Angus also wanted to know if Laurentian sought relief from the provincial or federal governments when it found out the extent of the financial hole it had to get out of.
“Did Minister Romano tell you you were on your own or the federal government? I can’t imagine they all just said ‘Hey well, whatever. We’ll just see it all torn down,'” Angus told the virtual meeting of the committee Tuesday.
Haché said that Laurentian had “extensive conversations” with the province, as well as some with federal representatives, in the months leading up to the insolvency filing on Feb. 1.
“I can’t comment on the decision-making process on the government side,” he said.
Marc Serré, Liberal MP for Nickel Belt, told Haché that many in the North have a “big issue with the process that’s been followed and the transparency.”
He was especially concerned “one of the most beautiful campuses in Canada” might be sold off in pieces.
Laurentian has been making deep cuts to programs since becoming insolvent under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) and undergoing restructuring to deal with its financial issues while still operating.
Haché said Laurentian has a “duty” to review the space it has and see if any of it is “truly surplus” to the needs of students.
“I’m not talking about the lands of the university necessarily, but really focused on physical infrastructure in terms of buildings and structures that might have other purposes that could benefit the university going forward,” he said.
Serré also asked about the cutting of the midwifery program, which will see students finish their degrees through universities in southern Ontario. The MP said the other schools have little experience training students in the francophone, Indigenous and rural realities of the North.
Haché said the university had “no choice” but to cut midwifery, since the program “cost us more to deliver than we were getting back in revenue.” But he admitted giving students a chance to finish their courses in French is a “challenge.”