Laurentian University’s collapse shows federal government must protect public institutions from private-sector restructuring

Posted on September 13, 2021 in Education Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors
Sept. 13, 2021.   By Sue Wurtele, Contributor

Even though Laurentian University announced its insolvency crisis in early February, fallout at the small institution in Sudbury, Ont. continues to this day.

More than 60 programs and over 100 faculty and staff jobs have been cut, first-year enrolments have plummeted 30 per cent, years of important research has been forsaken, and the university has largely abandoned its commitments to Francophone and Indigenous communities. In the wake of this destruction, the anxiety, frustration and heartbreak of Laurentian’s collapse will leave scars for years to come.

During this federal election, candidates have the opportunity to make sure this unnecessary devastation does not repeat itself at other public institutions.

That is because the tool Laurentian University used to force these cuts is a piece of federal legislation called the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) — legislation specifically designed for private-sector companies, not public institutions like universities.

This is unprecedented. Laurentian is the first publicly funded university in Canada to exploit the ambiguity of the CCAA. We need to make sure it is the last.

The unrelenting and callous CCAA court process has provided Laurentian’s administration with the authority to cut fast and cut deep. The results have been disastrous. With fewer programs, faculty and students, the university is now a shadow of its former self.

During this process, the interests of big banks, whose profits have soared during the pandemic, have been put squarely ahead of the university’s students, faculty and staff. Royal Bank, TD Canada Trust and the Bank of Montreal are extracting upwards of $100 million in debt repayments from Laurentian, leaving only scraps for the workers terminated without severance. The CCAA forces the most vulnerable to wait at the back of the line.

This is a warning to anyone who values Canada’s public institutions. If changes are not made to federal insolvency and bankruptcy legislation, this story of destruction will repeat itself elsewhere.

Among the major political parties, there seems to be agreement that the CCAA was misused at Laurentian. The NDP decried the application of the CCAA, calling for an end to the court proceedings; Liberal MP Paul Lefebvre proposed exempting public post-secondary institutions from the act; Bloc Québécois MP Marilène Gill proposed better protecting workers terminated under the CCAA; and Conservative MP Steven Blaney called the events at Laurentian a crisis for French language education.

During this federal election, political candidates across Canada have an opportunity to show that they care about Canada’s public services, have learned from Laurentian’s collapse, and will commit to amending the CCAA and the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act to exempt public institutions.

The precedent set by using the CCAA at Laurentian threatens the future of public institutions across Canada. The next federal government needs to ensure that what happened at Laurentian under the CCAA never happens to another university or public institution again.

Sue Wurtele is the president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.


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