Photo courtesy University of Sudbury

Legal tussle over termination of federation agreement looms at Laurentian University

  • April 23, 2021

The University of Sudbury has turned to the courts to put a stop to Laurentian University’s rapid dissolution of its founding agreements with three church-affiliated universities — the University of Sudbury (Jesuit), Thorneloe University (Anglican) and Huntington University (United Church).

The court motion hit just as Laurentian announced a “Black Monday” of cuts that axed 69 Laurentian degree programs and terminated employment for over 100 professors along with dozens of support staff.

University of Sudbury’s motion was filed with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice April 14. The Jesuit college in Sudbury argues Laurentian had no legal right to unilaterally tear up the 60-year-old federation agreement.

Laurentian University was created by provincial statute in 1960 at the request of the University of Sudbury, which traces its history serving the francophone community in Northern Ontario to the Collège du Sacré-Coeur, established in 1913.

The University of Sudbury motion warns that Laurentian’s actual purpose in terminating the federation agreement is to bankrupt the University of Sudbury, then take ownership of the University of Sudbury’s buildings, which have been built on land leased from Laurentian through a 99-year, extendable lease agreement — which is tied to the federation agreement.

“USudbury expected that the Federation Relationship would be permanent and relied on it being so when it entered into the Federation Agreement and the Lease,” reads the University of Sudbury court motion.

Laurentian’s Anglican affiliate, Thorneloe University, has also turned to the courts to block Laurentian’s April 1 notice that it will “disclaim or resiliate” its federation agreements as of May 1. Laurentian has abruptly divorced itself from the federated universities and announced massive cuts as part of a plan to emerge from bankruptcy under the Companies’ Creditor Arrangement Act (CCCA).

Laurentian is the first public university to avail itself of bankruptcy protection under the CCAA, which was designed for distressed private companies and their creditors. The university turned to the CCAA with $321 million in debt, including over $100 million in loans from banks. A further $214 million is owed to employees and other creditors.

Philosophy, fine arts, music, French-language humanities programs, physics, the University of Sudbury’s world-renowned Indigenous Studies program, religious studies, French-language midwifery, parts of the French-language education degree and environmental science were all among the programs axed April 15.

Christopher Duncanson-Hales, a contract philosophy and religious studies professor, has lost all hope of ever teaching at Laurentian again, his work now reduced to online tutoring.

“I said to my wife, I’m not teaching in Sudbury or Northern Ontario again, ever,” he said.

Among the courses Duncanson-Hales regularly taught was a first-year critical thinking course. With no philosophy department, that course no longer exists.

“So you can say Laurentian University is not teaching critical thinking,” Duncanson-Hales said.

Teaching university students in the north has always been rewarding for the opportunity to raise students and their families to a new world of possibilities, the professor said.

“It’s a lot of first-generation students,” Duncanson-Hales said. “University was never considered part of their life. They come in, they’re super-smart, they’re really bright. But they haven’t been encouraged. So you sort of see them blossom in first year and second year. They go on and do grad school and stuff like that.”

Among the many cuts that Duncanson-Hales finds incredible is the decision to axe the entire physics department, which includes the 2015 Nobel Prize-winning SNOLAB. The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory was investigating the nature of neutrinos and dark matter and attracted researchers from around the world. It’s also unique among physics departments in that it trains medical radiation therapists for work in cancer therapy across Northern Ontario.

“It’s not a university anymore,” Duncanson-Hales said.

University of Sudbury graduate Valerie Caza can’t believe that Laurentian is turning its back on its Catholic partner, where she was an active member of the University of Sudbury parish and where she explored her Franco-Ontarian culture and heritage while earning a degree in speech and language pathology.

“I took French folklore courses there (at the University of Sudbury), which to me were very interesting. It was part of my French heritage and culture,” she said. “Being involved in the parish, I got to know some of the professors at the University of Sudbury whom I wouldn’t have known otherwise, and students too who weren’t in my program that I built really good relationships with.”

Caza has a young cousin in Grade 12 who has just submitted her choices for university next year, with Laurentian included on the list.

“It would be tricky to recommend that people go there,” she said. “Just because a lot of what I experienced I think is not so much the reality anymore.”

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