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OPINION: A university 'by and for' francophones

Autonomous French-language structure within Laurentian is the most logical solution following insolvency
Laurentian University campus 1
Laurentian University in Sudbury (Supplied photo)

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

President Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, gave new life to this phrase when he uttered it during Obama’s first term. What is routinely left out, though, is the second sentence in the quote: "…what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

Is the current financial crisis at Laurentian University, and the simultaneous enrolment crisis at Université de l'Ontario français, such an opportunity? An opportunity to do something that we “could not do before?" This is the question Northern Policy Institute asked three leading thinkers to answer.

As those authors began to ponder that question, the University of Sudbury, with a long history of serving both the francophone and Indigenous communities, made a surprise announcement. It was “making its two charters available to these communities.” By sharing its charters, the University “seeks to develop postsecondary education by, for and with these communities.”

This announcement seems to have made the situation both more complex and more straightforward. Below is the second of the three pieces exploring why. The first is available to read here, while the third can be accessed here.

(Disclosure: NPI’s board chair, Pierre Bélanger, co-authored an open letter calling for a reassessment of Laurentian’s bilingual status. University of Sudbury’s Board of Regents is chaired by Pierre Riopel, who is also a director of NPI. As per NPI’s policy of research independence from our board, neither Mr. Bélanger nor Mr. Riopel were involved in commissioning or reviewing the reports considering the future of French language instruction in Ontario.)


On Feb. 1, 2021, Laurentian University’s president, Robert Haché, Ph.D., announced that the institution was insolvent and had to seek protection under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act, reviving the issue of autonomy around French post-secondary education in Northern Ontario. This is an issue that has been debated and discussed for at least 60 years in the North, from the time Laurentian University was established in 1960.

The purpose of this report is to review two possible scenarios for delivering this coveted autonomy: first, the Université de l’Ontario français and second, a federated university such as the University of Sudbury.

I think it would be helpful at this point to summarize the proliferation of reactions over the past two weeks following Laurentian’s announcement.

  • Francophone Laurentian alumni are proposing a French-language university with campuses in Sudbury, Hearst and Toronto, but are not saying whether it would be the UOF
  • A Northern Ontario coalition has been formed to study creation of a French-language university in Northeastern Ontario
  • A poll conducted by Laurentian’s Regroupement des professeurs francophones (Francophone Professors Alliance) revealed that 75.8% of its members are in favour (strongly and somewhat) “of creating a French-language entity (college or federated university faculty) that would enable programs in French to be administered “by and for” francophones, with financial autonomy”
  • University of Sudbury (U of S) announces plan for a university “by and for” francophones
  • In response to this announcement, two UOF spokespersons (Edith Dumont, vice-president, and Dyane Adam, chair of the board of governors) stated that the UOF needs to focus first and foremost on its opening in September 2021. “There may possibly be some partnerships after that,” said Edith Dumont
  • In a statement on Tuesday, March 16, Laurentian’s president Robert Haché said that “the commitment to Ontario’s francophone community is a primary goal of Laurentian University and will continue to be a leading part of our mission as a restructured Laurentian goes forward into the future.”
  • At the March 19 meeting of the Regroupement des professeurs francophones, 60 members voted unanimously in favour of the following resolution: “Be it resolved that the Regroupement des professeurs francophones demands that governance of Mid-North French-language university programs, along with the related services and finances, be allocated to a board of governors from New Ontario’s French-language community under the “by and for” principle, as the community has been advocating for decades.”

A. Université de l’Ontario français at Laurentian

I elected to focus my research into this hypothesis on four components:

  1. Programs of Study
  2. Faculty
  3. Students
  4. Governance
  1. Programs of Study

Established on April 9, 2018, the UOF’s special mission is to offer a range of university degrees and education in French to promote the linguistic, cultural, economic and social well-being of its students and of Ontario’s French-speaking community.

One of its objectives is to provide French-language undergraduate and graduate university programs that are innovative and respond to the needs of students, the community and employers, as well as to advance the values of pluralism and inclusiveness and support governance by and for the French-speaking community by conducting its affairs in French. The UOF may confer degrees and honorary degrees and award certificates and diplomas in any and all branches of learning.

Its focus is to offer collaborative and interdisciplinary programs “that integrate knowledge and methods from a number of disciplines (e.g., geography, psychology, law, management, sociology, history, arts, economics or information technology)."

The UOF decided on a Toronto location in order to reach the student population in southern, western and central Ontario for the most part. Four bachelor’s programs are currently being offered:

  • Human Plurality Studies
  • Digital Culture Studies
  • Economics and Social Innovation Studies
  • Urban Environment Studies

Established in 1960, Laurentian University currently offers over 100 programs, i.e., approximately 80 undergraduate and 34 graduate (27 master’s and seven doctoral). It also features 14 research centres or institutes as well as 13 research chairs. Its three federated universities (University of Sudbury, Huntington University and Thorneloe University) offer a total of 14 bachelor’s programs.

There is obviously a significant disparity in programs of study between the two institutions, which is completely normal given their respective ages, but I feel this disparity is a fundamental one. The UOF offers only interdisciplinary undergraduate programs while Laurentian University has a variety of mostly disciplinary undergraduate and graduate programs focusing on traditional branches of learning, like most Ontario and Canadian universities. I feel this dissimilarity would make it impossible to combine the two institutions’ programs.

  1. Faculty

The UOF does not have a regular faculty at this time. “In the absence of a regular faculty in 2019, the Board of Governors adopted a policy concerning associate professors. The aim of this policy was to deepen the university’s academic component (continued implementation of study and research programs at the UOF), as well as to update its interinstitutional projects.”

The university has 30 associate professors from universities in Québec, Ontario and New Brunswick, from Ontario colleges and institutes, as well as from public and private businesses. These professors provide instruction in the four programs indicated above. None of these associate professors are from Laurentian University. 

Laurentian University has more than 300 tenured professors – 111 of whom teach in French – in addition to master lecturers and part-time professors, meaning there is a considerable disparity between the two institutions in this regard.  

I contacted a few UL professors to find out whether they would agree to transfer to the UOF if it were located on the Laurentian campus or in the region. Most said they would not (admitting they were not very familiar with the UOF), citing their tenure, union protection and participation in graduate programs.

  1. Students

As of mid-February the UOF had received 66 applications for admission for the 2021-2022 academic year. 

At the start of the academic year in September 2020, Laurentian University had 1,901 francophone students enrolled as follows among the various faculties:

  • Arts: 395
  • Health: 995
  • Science: 142
  • Management: 121
  • Education: 152
  • Graduate Studies: 84

The Laurentian student body grew by 400 between 2016 and 2020, explained in large part by the increased number of students in online courses. The francophone student population in years 2016 to 2020 follows:

  • 2016: 1,480
  • 2017: 1,545
  • 2018: 1,661
  • 2019: 1,783
  • 2020: 1,901

Source: Reliable and anonymous

The vast majority of Laurentian students could not take courses in their focus area, so they would not be much inclined to transfer to the UOF.  

Francophone students have their own association, i.e., the Association des étudiantes et des étudiants francophones (AEF), but not all of them are members. Some have elected to join the Students’ General Association (SGA) instead.

  1. Governance

What type of governance structure could the UOF put in place that would be mindful of the fact that the majority of its professors and students would be concentrated in Sudbury, while central administration would be concentrated in Toronto? Just asking.

How could the Academic Senate be structured without giving a deciding vote to the professors, students and administrators located in Sudbury? Without a Senate majority they would be reluctant to accept – or would even reject – that program decisions be dictated from Toronto.


For these reasons, the hypothesis of a UOF campus in Sudbury does not seem realistic to me at all.

B. Alternative: Autonomous French-language structure at Laurentian University

In my opinion, the only possible, realistic alternative is an autonomous structure within Laurentian University. I will try to describe the type of structure this might be. 

The actions and statements by many Sudbury-region groups detailed on page one of this report indicate clear support for French-language university education in Sudbury and Northern Ontario. Most are saying it needs to be delivered at an autonomous institution administered “by and for” francophones, but no one is specifying the nature and structure of such an institution.

I feel a federated university such as the University of Sudbury, with interinstitutional agreements, is the most realistic alternative and the one that could be achieved in the shortest time, in large part because U of S has had a university charter with full powers since 1914. “ 1914 the Ontario Legislature bestows an impressive charter on the college (Sacré-Coeur); that document gives the college the power “to establish and maintain Faculties, University Colleges, Universities, Observatories and other equivalent institutions, in addition to degree- and certificate-granting powers.” 

However, I feel that in order for this federated university to become fully autonomous and administered “by and for” Francophones, a period of transition involving negotiations and agreements, mainly with Laurentian, will be required. U of S will need to abandon its religious affiliation and also find a fair way to divest itself of its three English-language programs with its English students and professors.

This is how I envision a transition structure:

  1. The University of Sudbury, with its residence and main building, has been a fixture at Laurentian for close to 60 years. Its central building features offices for professors, a library, classrooms, administrative offices and two large student spaces. It would be beneficial for U of S to renovate the former Jesuit Fathers’ area into modern classrooms, and it could also purchase or lease the Alphonse Raymond Building where French-language programs are already being delivered.
  2. The university already has a basic administrative structure (president and registrar) that could easily be bolstered by other administrative positions such as vice-presidents and deans if necessary.
  3.  The administration would be largely autonomous in terms of courses, but would need to negotiate agreements with Laurentian for graduate and bilingual undergraduate programs. It would have a degree of financial autonomy and could, with its university charter, negotiate directly with the federal and provincial governments.
  4. Students could choose from a variety of French-language university courses administered by U of S and, with agreements in place, from other programs administered by Laurentian.
  5. Professors would teach the University of Sudbury courses and, with agreements in place, could be involved in bilingual and graduate courses. They would retain their tenure and have union protection through the Laurentian University Faculty Association (LUFA), which already represents U of S faculty. Additionally, an agreement with Laurentian would enable them to continue contributing to their pension plan. If such an agreement were not possible, U of S could join other Ontario universities that have started merging their pension plans.
  6. Program administration would be handled by a bicameral Senate where the French chamber would administer the French-language programs autonomously. Bilingual and graduate programs would be administered by a Senate in plenary session.

This is my broad vision for a university – in this case the University of Sudbury – by and for francophones during a transition period possibly leading to full autonomy.

Donald Dennie is a professor emeritus of sociology at Laurentian University.

Northern Policy Institute is an independent social and economic think tank based in Northern Ontario with offices in Thunder Bay and Sudbury.