This article was first published by Sudbury.com, a Village Media publication.
The Ford government rejected a Francophone university proposal last year despite a 2022 report that showed the Université de Sudbury had the organizational capacity to offer such programming.
Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles spoke about the newly revealed report on the Université de Sudbury proposal during a Feb. 1 press conference in Sudbury, where she slammed the province for its actions to date on the file.
She was joined at the press conference by Joanne Gervais, executive director of the Association canadienne française de l'Ontario (ACFO) du Grand Sudbury, as well as NDP MPPs Jamie West (Sudbury), France Gélinas (Nickel Belt) and Guy Bourgouin (Mushkegowuk–James Bay).
“We care about this issue, and we're going to continue to fight for it,” said Stiles.
The report being referenced by Stiles was submitted to Colleges and Universities Minister Jill Dunlop in September 2022 by the Postsecondary Education Quality Assessment Board (or PEQAB).
Francophone media outlets recently obtained the report through a freedom of information request.
If you’re wondering what exactly PEQAB is, it’s an Ontario agency that makes recommendations to the Minister of Colleges and Universities of Ontario on applications for ministerial consent.
Dunlop had referred to PEQAB a request to assess the Université de Sudbury’s organizational capacity to offer degree-level programming as a stand-alone institution and to receive public funding for that purpose.
The Université de Sudbury is one of three now formerly federated universities operating on Laurentian University’s campus.
Formerly known as the University of Sudbury before a rebrand, it made the decision to transform its operations to serve the Francophone community in the weeks before Laurentian University announced in 2021 it was terminating the federation agreement going back to LU’s founding 60 years before.
In September 2022, PEQAB found Université de Sudbury to have met the organizational review standards, “and that the institution has the organizational capacity to offer publicly funded post-secondary education programming.”
The eight criteria used in the organizational review included mission statement and academic goals, administrative capacity, ethical conduct, academic freedom and integrity, student protection, financial stability, dispute resolution and organization evaluation.
As conditions of approval, PEQAB recommended that the Université de Sudbury recruit a permanent chief financial officer, that faculty members be hired and the academic plan be finalized.
The Université de Sudbury had submitted its final application for project approval to that same body, PEQAB, in January 2023, the institution’s president, Serge Miville told us last year.
But on June 30, 2023, the province revealed it was rejecting the project, saying the Université de Sudbury funding request to create a standalone Francophone university in Sudbury “does not reflect the current demand and enrolment trends.”
“The government themselves commissioned an independent report,” said Stiles. “That report found that not only did the proposal for a Francophone university here in Sunbury meet all eight criteria, it exceeded them.
“So what did the Conservatives do? They hid the report, they buried it, they stonewalled, they lost it behind a filing cabinet, you tell me, and they turned their backs on Franco-Ontarians here in Northern Ontario — they refuse them their fundamental right to education in their own language.”
Asked about the fact that it took a freedom of information request to reveal the PEQAB report’s contents, Stiles said it’s “astounding to me that once again, this government continues to always hide the facts from Ontarians.”
Stiles said her party has been pretty successful at getting the Conservative government “to flip-flop and back off of just about every policy decision they brought in in 2023. And this one, we're committed to them reversing as well.”
Université de Sudbury president Serge Miville was not at the Feb. 1 press conference. Sudbury.com reached out to his office by email, asking for a phone interview, but were told he was not available.
ACFO’s Joanne Gervais said during the press conference “it’s not at all surprising that the provincial government of the day keeps asking for information, asking for reports, asking for evidence, asking for us to bend over backwards to simply ignore any findings that don’t align with their biased, already-made decision.”
She added that the Franco-Ontarian community are “a tenacious group and we don’t take no for an answer. I can assure you that your underhand refusal, made late in the afternoon on a Friday before a long weekend (referring to the province’s June 30 rejection of the proposal), changes nothing about our demands, changes nothing about our desire for this long- sought institution and changes nothing about our expectations.
“If you think that your refusal will make us give up and abandon our demands, it simply shows how little or how little you know about the Franco-Ontarian community and its history.”
Sudbury.com also reached out to the Ministry of Colleges and Universities for their response to Stiles’ comments on the Université de Sudbury project.
An emailed statement from the ministry said while the PEQAB review of the Université de Sudbury’s proposal focused on organizational factors like student protections, academic freedom, ethical conduct, and administrative capacity, consistent with PEQAB Organizational Review Standards, the ministry considered a number of additional factors in order to make this decision.
The ministry concluded that the Université de Sudbury’s proposal did not reflect the current demand and enrolment trends as well as existing capacity of post-secondary institutions to offer French-language programs in the Greater Sudbury area and across Ontario, the statement said.
Over the past five years, domestic enrolment at French-language universities in Ontario has remained low, the statement continues.
Université de l’Ontario français and Université de Hearst have low domestic enrolment - in 2021-2022 they had 61 and 17 domestic students, respectively.
Approving and funding a third French-language institution may exacerbate this, said the ministry, in its statement.
During Stiles’ Feb. 1 press conference, a reporter asked the speakers about the low enrolment at the two other francophone universities in the province.
MPP Bourgouin pointed out that Université de l’Ontario français is a new university, only launching in September 2021.
“And if you remember, when they started, the government dragged their feet for this university to give them their chance to start,” he said, adding that the province also limited what courses could be offered because of other nearby universities.
“So they’re tying their hands,” and now they’re saying they don’t have a high enough enrolment, Bourgouin said.
The MPPs emphasized the importance of providing French-language education in this part of Northern Ontario, so that youth don’t feel the need to move away to get an education.
“To say that we have a French university that's 400 kilometers away is good enough is insulting to the people of this community, just frankly insulting,” said MPP Jamie West.
Heidi Ulrichsen is Sudbury.com’s assistant editor. She also covers education and the arts scene.