Laurentian program cuts violated French Language Services Act, commissioner finds (

March 31, 2022

31 March 2022

Commissioner Kelly Burke found Laurentian University, Ministry of Francophone Affairs and the Ministry of Colleges and Universities failed to meet their obligations under the legislation

Jenny Lamothe
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March 31, 2022

Laurentian University “neglected their obligations under the French Language Services Act during the university's financial restructuring process” the French Language Services Commissioner of Ontario said today.

On March 31, Commissioner Kelly Burke released the results of her investigation into potential violations by Laurentian University under the French-language Services Act. She found that not only was Laurentian in violation, but so was the Ministry of Francophone Affairs and the Ministry of Colleges and Universities.

As Laurentian University became a designated French-language institute in 2014, it has obligations to adhere to under the act. The commissioner said the school failed to adhere to the French Languages Services Act even before April 12, 2021, when Laurentian announced it would cut 29 French-language programs. Burke concluded that the university “had already begun to make cuts to French-language programming leading to designated degrees prior to April 12 2021.”

From the report: "The nearly 50-per-cent cuts to French-language programs announced on April 12, 2021 by Laurentian University have had a significant and detrimental impact on the university's delivery of French-language services.”

Burke also found that the ministries failed to fulfill its own obligations to ensure French services at the university were protected.

The investigation centred on questions related to whether or not Laurentian met its obligations as a partially designated agency under the French-language services act; if the Ministry of Colleges and Universities met its obligations under the act during the financial restructuring of Laurentian, and; whether the Ministry of Francophone Affairs fulfilled its obligations as administrator of the act during the restructuring.

As of Sept. 30, the office had received 60 complaints regarding Laurentian’s insolvency and subsequent restructuring.

The investigation found a lack of leadership in the administration of the French Language Services Act (FLSA), and that the university did not consult with the two ministries to discuss the impact of its decisions on its obligations under the FLSA before suspending and cutting programs.

"Laurentian University and the ministries must take responsibility and work together to comply with the Act," the Commissioner stated.

During the March 31 press conference, Burke spoke to the initiation of the investigation on June 16, 2021, as well as the response from Francophones who made the complaints.

“First and foremost, let me tell you what we heard from Francophones. The people contacted were dismayed, frustrated and enraged by Laurentian University’s decisions to cut French-language programming,” she said. “We heard stories of students who had to transfer to other institutions to complete their studies, stories of the abolition of the midwifery program — the only one in the country that is offered in French outside of Quebec — and students have had to transfer to other institutions.”

Her report makes 19 recommendations to fix communication gaps, improve planning and ensure such a situation does not reoccur. The ministries and the university “accepted all of the recommendations and pledged to report back to the Commissioner on their progress in implementing them”, said Burke.

One such communication gap, said Burke, was the regulation under the French Language Services Act related to the need to maintain designation by offering a specific number of French-language degree programs. Burke said the wording is unclear.

“Under regulation, the university has a duty to provide 13 degree programs, but I concluded that this wording has created a great deal of confusion in the eyes of the public,” she said at the press conference.

She said that the wording “leads to the notion that you could keep one program under each degree and still be in compliance with your obligations, which is what we heard during the investigation.” Burke said she believed this interpretation was against the spirit of the French Language Services Act.

Several of the complainants were students from Laurentian who were left with no other option but to relocate or continue their studies in English. Some, like those in the midwifery program, pointed out to the commissioner that the loss of their programs would also impact the Franco-Ontarian community at large – for example, no other school in the province trains midwives to provide services in French.

"The university no longer trains Francophone graduates who go on to work in this profession in French and provide services in French," the commissioner wrote. "I consider it crucial that the university analyze the impact of such a decision on its obligations under its designation."

Laurentian University and the Ministry of Colleges and Universities were focused on the university's financial difficulties, while the Ministry of Francophone Affairs failed to take an active role, resulting in "a situation where no one was ensuring the protection of language rights under the French Language Services Act," the Commissioner noted.

In all, the commissioner said the university cut 72 programs, including 29 French-language ones. Evidence gathered in the investigation indicated that French programs were cut largely because of low enrolment, with very little consideration of their French Language Services Act designation.

Laurentian University violated the act specifically when it cut all courses under the Master of Arts and Master of Human Kinetics streams, leaving students unable to complete their degrees, Burke found.

The main problems identified by the investigation, the report states, were the “lack of leadership, consultation and evaluation to proactively identify the impact of the university's decisions on its designation.” To remedy this, Burke recommended the three parties work together to ensure that the designation of the university is implemented and managed effectively.

The Commissioner stated her recommendations are aimed at preventing similar situations in the future.

"I am confident that my recommendations will benefit French-speaking Ontarians in the future in the post-secondary education sector," she states in the report.

You can find the full report here.