Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Ladies and gentlemen of the committee, I would like to thank you for inviting us before you today to represent francophone students.
The Regroupement étudiant franco-ontarien, or RÉFO, is the voice of the more than 22,000 francophone students registered in one of Ontario's French-language and bilingual post-secondary education institutions. Our organization was founded in 2009 as a direct reaction to the problems of assimilation in bilingual institutions. You will understand, therefore, that I will be talking a lot about that subject today.
Last February, Laurentian University announced that it was seeking protection from its creditors under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act, the CCAA, an act designed for private companies. It subsequently abolished 28 programs in French, laid off 100 or so professors and staff members, and terminated its agreements with its affiliated universities.
Laurentian University stated before this committee that only 10% of students would be directly affected by the cuts that have been announced. Our organization does not share this view and, in that context, I would like to tell you about our former president, Marie‑Pierre Héroux.
Marie-Pierre has been a committed student since high school and is in her final year of the history and French studies programs. Originally from Eastern Ontario, she chose Laurentian University because of its bilingual model and, over the years, she has developed a deep attachment to the community of Sudbury.
Unfortunately, the two programs in which Marie-Pierre was a student were abolished. All the professors she had since she entered university were laid off. The French-speaking residence in which she lived also shut its doors. In her own words, all the reference points that she had created for herself in her university experience disappeared overnight.
However, Marie-Pierre received confirmation from Laurentian University that she will be able to earn the remaining credits she needs from a very limited selection of courses, the number and content of which are still unknown. In the eyes of Laurentian University, therefore, she is not considered to be a student directly affected by the cuts. However, let me ask you, as Canadians, as former students and as parents; do you really consider that Marie-Pierre is not suffering any direct consequences from those cuts?
Does the very question not answer itself?
Today, Marie-Pierre is looking at transferring to Ottawa and leaving a region where she might well have made a life for herself. She feels significantly insecure as to how her studies will continue and as to the value of her future degree. Unfortunately, Marie-Pierre's story is not unique and shows the limits of bilingual educational institutions. This is because not only is French-language programming still not a priority for those institutions, but also because bilingual status for them means that a number of programs are under the direction of those from the majority community, who are not equipped to understand the complexity of francophone realities.
The culture in these universities tends to analyze the obsolescence of course offerings using criteria such as the number of registrations, the economic benefit and the costs of maintaining them. Although those criteria are important, they do not assess the real contribution of those courses to the cultural and linguistic vitality of francophones or their role in combatting exodus and assimilation. Thus, a number of the now-abolished programs were essential in creating initiatives and organizations that are vital for the Franco-Ontarian community.
Finally, although the bilingual educational institutions offer courses in French, they provide a university life and a campus where most activities take place in English. For the students, this contributes directly to assimilation. It is therefore critical for the federal government to work hand-in-hand with the province to ensure the development of independent university institutions run by, for and with Ontario's francophone communities and students.
It is also crucial for the federal government to ensure that a situation like the one at Laurentian University does not happen again. To do so, it can act on three fronts.
On the legal front, the government can pass legislation preventing other public educational institutions from seeking protection under the CCAA. It can also ensure that the redrafted Official Languages Act better defines the obligations of institutions that receive funds from the OLEP or from programs designed for OLMCs.
On the financial front, the government must demand better accountability for the transfers from the OLEP. Specifically, it must ensure that the money provided is not spent on purposes other than those set out in the program and the roadmap. We also suggest a specific envelope in that agreement for francophone organizations working in education. That envelope would allow them to increase the scope of their initiatives to combat assimilation, to strengthen francophone cultural identity among the students, and to provide more data-gathering tools in order to assess the linguistic vitality on bilingual campuses.
Finally, to deal with the specific situation at Laurentian University, we ask for a financial support program to be established with the province as soon as possible, so as to put a hold on the courses and programs provided at Laurentian University and to financially support the transfer of those programs, courses and resources to the Université de Sudbury, an entirely francophone institution.
The RÉFO will submit a brief to you, following up on today's appearance and addressing the topics discussed in greater depth.
Thank you for your attention.
I will be glad to answer your questions.