STANDING COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC ACCOUNTS
COMITÉ PERMANENT DES
Wednesday 28 April 2021 Mercredi 28 Avril 2021
The committee met at 1230 in room 151 and by video conference, following a closed session.
The Chair (Mr. Taras Natyshak): Welcome back, members of the public accounts committee. As you know, we have a motion on the table. We’re going to debate the motion right now filed by Madame France Gélinas, MPP, that the Standing Committee on Public Accounts request that the Auditor General conduct a value-for-money audit on the impact of changes to post-secondary education funding on Laurentian University’s operations from the period of 2010 to 2020.
Madame Gélinas, can you move the motion?
Mme France Gélinas: I move that the Standing Committee on Public Accounts request that the Auditor General conduct a value-for-money audit on the impact of changes to post-secondary education funding on Laurentian University’s operations from the period of 2010 to 2020.
The Chair (Mr. Taras Natyshak): Thanks very much.
Can I also take attendance here? I see that MPP Jamie West is here. Can you tell us who you are and where you’re at?
Mr. Jamie West: I’m MPP Jamie West. I’m in my office, probably right above you.
The Chair (Mr. Taras Natyshak): Thank you very much.
MPP Martin, can you tell us where you’re at and who you are?
Mrs. Robin Martin: It’s MPP Robin Martin. I’m at Queen’s Park, in Toronto.
The Chair (Mr. Taras Natyshak): We have a motion on the table, and we’ll open the floor to discussion and debate. Madame Gélinas?
Mme France Gélinas: Just so that everybody knows, Laurentian University in Sudbury is going through what is called a CCAA process—that’s the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act. This is an act to protect yourself from your creditors. They went into this process in order to pay their creditors. The problem is that many people in Sudbury, Nickel Belt and the northeast are very suspicious of the CCAA process, because all of the decisions are made behind closed doors. That means that most financial documents are not available publicly.
Many people in Sudbury and around are asking for a forensic audit to be done to see what happened at Laurentian. I’m told that KPMG has done a forensic audit for the courts, but those documents are not available to the public; yet they form the basis of decisions made by the CCAA that are, frankly, devastating to our community and really hard to understand. As an example, the midwifery program is paid for by the Ministry of Health, not by the Ministry of Colleges and Universities. It is 100% funded, yet it got cut.
I know that the Auditor General has the power to look at universities, so I would request that her office conduct a value-for-money audit on the impact of the funding to Laurentian University’s operations from 2010 to 2020, but also to look—because there are many people who suspect that there has been wrongdoing that led to this, and others basically would just like to know what are the lessons learned from the audit of the financial decisions that were made by Laurentian University.
So I would say that I and many members of my community are just looking for an independent audit that will be public so that people can have their questions answered. Right now, no financial documents are available to the public. With the auditor going in and telling us, basically, whatever she’s allowed to share with us, it will calm down a lot of anger, a lot of questions, a lot of anxiety in my community and help to move things forward. And frankly, this is the first public institution, the first university to ever use the CCAA process, so there are probably lessons to be learned financially from this, and this is certainly something that the auditor would be, I’m sure, welcome to comment on.
The Chair (Mr. Taras Natyshak): Mr. Parsa?
Mr. Michael Parsa: I support the intent of this motion, and I do thank my colleague for bringing it forward for the reasons that she mentioned.
The only thing I would like to suggest to my colleagues is that we don’t limit this, that we expand the scope of the study. The government funding of Laurentian is about 35% to 40% of the annual revenue. The other portions are tuition and research and funding, private fundraisers, other fees etc. I’d like to see it expanded so that we have a broader scope to truly understand and get the picture of the situation.
I have a short amendment I’d like to propose, if we can discuss it now, Chair. If not, let me know when, please.
The Chair (Mr. Taras Natyshak): You can discuss it now. Go ahead.
Mr. Michael Parsa: It would just be, again, the same motion that Madame Gélinas has moved but removing where it says “the impact of changes to post-secondary education funding on”. Once you remove that, that would leave a broad scope for us to be able to cover.
Let me know if you’d like for me to move it, but I think it’s pretty self-explanatory: “the impact of changes to post-secondary education funding on” is to be removed.
Mme France Gélinas: I would consider this a friendly amendment.
The Chair (Mr. Taras Natyshak): Thanks, Mr. Parsa.
Mr. Jamie West: Chair, did you want me to speak on the motion or on the amendment? I just want to know if I’m in order.
The Chair (Mr. Taras Natyshak): You can speak on anything you like, but we have an amendment of the motion on the floor.
Mr. Jamie West: Okay. I’m in favour of the amendment.
I just want to bring some context to the struggles that are happening in Sudbury. I’m the MPP for Sudbury, and Laurentian is located in Sudbury. We were surprised. We had no idea. We knew there were financial problems last summer, in June and July, on a much smaller scale. I believe the Minster of Colleges and Universities knew about six months before they entered the CCAA creditor protection in more detail. But aside from that, the entire community has been shut out from the whole process and does not know what’s going on in the process. They’ve entered in this secretive CCAA creditor agreement that has isolated everyone around.
The feeling in the community is that, if you compare the scenario to the province’s requirement for some of the funding, and the board of governance at Laurentian, who is responsible for fiscal responsibility—they’ve driven the Jeep into the ditch. The workers and the students seem to have been kicked out of the back seat of the Jeep, and now, they’ll drive out of the ditch. We have no answers about how we got into the ditch or how we’ll be safe and not go into the ditch in the future, if I can use that analogy.
The first round of CCAA cuts has created a loss of over 100 jobs. We have lost programs. This is the part that doesn’t make sense for a lot of people. How do we recover and get back on our feet when we cancel programs like economics, math, physics, political science, philosophy, engineering, environmental science and midwifery? Some of those courses are just regular courses that are well-attended.
Midwifery: As MPP Gélinas said earlier, there are only six of these in Canada. This is the only one in northern Ontario; the other two in Ontario are in Toronto or Ottawa—which makes a massive burden for northern students, especially those coming from farther north than Sudbury, with those expenses of travelling and staying in another city, which make it unreachable for a lot of people. Laurentian really is a university where the majority of students who are there are the first in their families, with limited means, to go. It is the only French midwifery program outside of Quebec. It is the only bilingual program in Canada. All that is going to be a loss.
Our physics program: I don’t understand how physics and math can be cancelled at all. SNOLAB is connected with Laurentian University. It is the only clean neutrino observatory, I think, in North America; it’s one of three around the world. Dr. McDonald at SNOLAB won a Nobel Prize in physics. He has described this as Sudbury being intellectually and educationally cut off from attracting other students.
Sudbury is the mining capital of the world. We have more than 100 years of nickel mining. The next evolution of vehicle development—we had the Ford Model T, we had the Detroit wave in the 1950s, and the electric vehicle will be the next wave. Mining is the cornerstone to this. We’ve lost mining engineering at Laurentian University.
We have an Indigenous studies program. It is the oldest in Ontario, the second-oldest in Canada; the other one being in British Columbia. It has been stripped of its core mandates. The professors, who are Indigenous, who developed this over decades, have all been fired. It is now going to be taught by non-Indigenous professors. It has basically gone up on a job board for chemistry teachers and anyone else to apply for. I don’t understand how students will be attracted to a program to teach about truth and reconciliation, to teach about colonialism in a program that basically is part of colonialism, where we’ve bypassed the Indigenous community.
Environmental science: The reality is, the future is in the environment. You can slow it down, you can try whatever you want, but really, that’s where we’re going.
Electric vehicles are the way of the future. We’re moving there rapidly. We are poised in Ontario to be the next Detroit. I’ve heard this independently from car manufacturers who have told me that they can manufacture anywhere around the world. Ontario has a leading edge because of our deep mining resources, because of our manpower, our physical millwrights, labourers, trade school work and because of our higher education—because these machines are as much technology as they are machines. I’ll tell you, as a former employee of Vale, when the price of nickel and copper fell through the floor in 2016 and 2017, it was because of electric vehicles and the demand for cobalt that we were able to keep our doors open in northern Ontario, in mining companies for nickel. Cobalt, before this, was basically a waste product. So we are poised to make a ton of money by being the next Detroit of the future, and Laurentian is critical to holding that together.
One final thing on environmental science—and this goes into mining as well, and it’s difficult to understand. Tailings are a by-product of mining. Basically, it’s a waste mud. It’s toxic. It’s dangerous. It’s full of all these different chemicals. When you mine, it’s the by-product that has been set aside. There is a project happening right now by Dr. Nadia Mykytczuk. She’s a highly regarded microbiologist in bioleaching and mine remediation. What happens is, you basically dump these tailings, a slurry paste, like very dirty water, and you build a dam; and you dump more and you build a dam; and the dam will be incredibly high. These are all around the world. In this water, as well as the waste product, are precious minerals that weren’t able to be leached off or captured properly. Dr. Mykytczuk is working on a process that will lead the world in being able to clean the tailings ponds and recover those minerals, making mining companies even more profitable. This will be a project that, once successful, will be in demand around the world, and Ontario would lead. She has lost her job. This project is in danger of being lost.
I want to remind you again, we’re talking about these cuts bringing in $100 million of negative economic impact to my community. They’re talking about that happening annually. On top of that, we’ve lost our tri-cultural-bilingual mandate, which doesn’t seem to exist as strongly anymore.
They tell me that only 10% of students will be impacted, but that number is a little massaged, because the 10% who are impacted are those who have no path forward. Many students, including my son—his major and his minor program have been cancelled, so he’s considered not impacted because now—he lost his major, he lost his minor. He can graduate with a general arts BA, but that’s not what he enrolled in.
With all this in mind—and I can go on for a much longer time on all the damage of this—what will be the reputation of this university to attract students, to attract professors, to attract donors? And I’m talking about donors for scholarships and bursaries and donors who are going to commit money towards research.
With all of this being behind closed doors, hidden away from everybody, and without knowing what’s going on there, how will people gain confidence in Laurentian without having a nice forensic audit to demonstrate what got us in this situation and how we can get out of it?
The Chair (Mr. Taras Natyshak): MPP Hogarth?
Ms. Christine Hogarth: First, I want to thank the MPP from Nickel Belt for bringing this forward.
I lived in Sudbury for many years. Most of my friends are alumni of Laurentian University. Their children go to school there. Some are employees.
I want to thank MPP Parsa for bringing forward this amendment, because it’s larger than just the one piece. I think we need to get to the bottom of it, as a whole.
So again, I appreciate the motion coming forward, and I also thank MPP Parsa for bringing forward the amendment.
This really is impacting this community. I hear it every day, as my friends are caught in it, living in Sudbury. It is probably the most important conversation that’s happening in that community right now. It affects employees, community members and the Laurentian alumni.
So I just want to say I certainly appreciate this motion and I support the amendment.
The Chair (Mr. Taras Natyshak): Are there any other questions? Mr. Barrett.
Mr. Toby Barrett: I just want to echo the sentiment of the comments so far during these deliberations.
What has happened at Laurentian University is deeply concerning. Personally, I wasn’t aware of these developments. I don’t know if it’s a conflict of interest, but my son was a graduate of Laurentian. We’re from the south, and my son spent many years up there. He really enjoyed the university. It opened up so much for my son and for our family to learn a bit more about the beautiful Sudbury area, Manitoulin, that whole neck of the woods up there.
Again, I didn’t know about this, and that’s understandable. Universities are autonomous. They have a board of governors. They make decisions around that boardroom table. We know, as France mentioned, it’s now before the CCAA process, which—I guess that would freeze us out of any influence on that process. Obviously, it’s like a court process.
I will mention that as far as government oversight, of course, we have a minister, Minister Romano, who is on top of this and monitoring this. Through Minister Romano—maybe not all members of the committee would know that a special adviser has been appointed. I understand the appointment of the special adviser requires an independent analysis. That special adviser is Mr. Harrison. Obviously, he has quite a reputable background.
To take this further with an Auditor General’s investigation or a value-for-money audit—I would support that, not only to get to the bottom of this with respect to Laurentian, but is there other information out there on other universities that we don’t know about? And why would we know about it? We don’t sit on the board of governors. Do various student bodies know what’s going on?
I mention students; that’s what this is all about. They pay tuition.
I think of so many families, over the years with all of our universities and colleges, who donate money, and money that’s donated through wills—the research that is done and the monetary support for research, say, from the mining industry, the forest industry. Guelph is where I went. The agricultural industry invests a great deal of money in these institutions.
If the public doesn’t know what’s going on, perhaps this value-for-money audit would give us some direction on how better to have more appropriate oversight.
The Chair (Mr. Taras Natyshak): Any other questions? MPP West.
Mr. Jamie West: I want to expand on MPP Barrett’s comment about the donations. One of the things I didn’t discuss was the fact that all the money ended up in one bank account, from my understanding. Money that was allocated to go towards research, money that was allocated to go towards scholarships and grants all ended up in one bank account being spent on any project. So students who were working on research found out that the money that they had a legal contract for to provide research had been taken away from them. That’s something we need to look at. I want it put on the record for the auditors who might want to look at this.
As well, for any post-secondary educational institution, there are some donors who have very deep pockets, and we’re very grateful to them for the success of the education system; but there are also, as MPP Barrett said, donors who leave money in their will, donors who can only afford a small donation and put it forward—who have been contacting my office, devastated that this money has been lost to them. They wanted it to go to a specific program or to support students who are in a specific situation—students coming from an agricultural background or a French background. They’re devastated that their really small donations—a couple hundred dollars; maybe $1,000—have been misused.
We really need to look at this in the situation at Laurentian and then, perhaps, once we get the report, see if this is happening in other areas, so we can prevent it from happening in other cities.
The Chair (Mr. Taras Natyshak): Are there any other questions? Madam Auditor, please go ahead.
Ms. Bonnie Lysyk: I have a question with respect to the 10-year period. What we sometimes find is, when it extends over that length of time, there is an issue with document retention, or people are gone and not there anymore. I just need to understand why the 10-year period was selected for the motion.
The Chair (Mr. Taras Natyshak): Madame Gélinas?
Mme France Gélinas: There is no scientific basis behind this.
A lot of people say, “Well, there have been quite a few new buildings at Laurentian that cost money to build.” They are beautiful, they are being used, they are up to date and all of this, but they took years to build, and some people point to that—that the investment in infrastructure is what brought us to this point.
I would say I leave it up to your judgment, Auditor, to look back as far as—I put the 10 years because in the last 10 years is when most of the new infrastructure was built. If you want something that has to do with operation since the new infrastructure or something—or you can just take it from us that if you don’t need to go back 10 years, don’t. I just put it out there because as you start to look, you will see infrastructure investment.
Ms. Bonnie Lysyk: The motion can stay as the motion, and if this passes, once we look at this, we can determine what a reasonable period is that will provide this information.
Financial information, usually, you can trend, and usually you can look at it and see what has happened over a 10-year period; it’s not unreasonable from that perspective. It’s more from, if there is something—it’s how deep do you go in a period of time that’s 10 years before.
If I could come back to the committee, if the motion passes and we go ahead on this, with a time frame once we take a look at what would be reasonable—I am saying that if the motion passes, we’ll accept doing work on this. I just might have to come back to the committee in terms of a scope and a timeline in terms of what period of time we cover on Laurentian’s operations.
The Chair (Mr. Taras Natyshak): Are committee members comfortable with that approach? Mr. Barrett?
Mr. Toby Barrett: Just to clarify with the Auditor General as far as the scope of the inquiry: I think we all agree that we want to ensure—I know we’re doing an audit on what happened, but we also want to look forward and we want to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen in another academic institution elsewhere.
Is this motion okay? It doesn’t limit your scope as far as findings or recommendations that might help the public have a better university system, as far as looking after the books?
Ms. Bonnie Lysyk: No, that would be something—we can bring back recommendations. Sometimes, a retro look will allow for prospective recommendations. So the motion doesn’t limit us.
The Chair (Mr. Taras Natyshak): Any further questions or comments?
We have an amended motion. Can we vote on the amendment?
All those in favour of the amendment of the motion, raise your hands. All those opposed? Seeing none, the motion is amended.
Now a vote on the motion, as amended. All those in favour of the motion, as amended? All those opposed? Carried.
Thank you very much, colleagues. We will now move on to the report-writing on the Office of the Chief Coroner and Ontario Forensic Pathology Service in closed session.
The committee continued in closed session at 1254.
STANDING COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC ACCOUNTS
Chair / Président
Mr. Taras Natyshak (Essex ND)
Vice-Chair / Vice-Présidente
Mme France Gélinas (Nickel Belt ND)
Mr. Deepak Anand (Mississauga–Malton PC)
Mr. Toby Barrett (Haldimand–Norfolk PC)
Ms. Jessica Bell (University–Rosedale ND)
Mr. Stephen Blais (Orléans L)
Mr. Stephen Crawford (Oakville PC)
Mr. Rudy Cuzzetto (Mississauga–Lakeshore PC)
Mme France Gélinas (Nickel Belt ND)
Ms. Christine Hogarth (Etobicoke–Lakeshore PC)
Mr. Daryl Kramp (Hastings–Lennox and Addington PC)
Mr. Taras Natyshak (Essex ND)
Mr. Michael Parsa (Aurora–Oak Ridges–Richmond Hill PC)
Substitutions / Membres remplaçants
Mr. Lorne Coe (Whitby PC)
Mrs. Robin Martin (Eglinton–Lawrence PC)
Ms. Sandy Shaw (Hamilton West–Ancaster–Dundas / Hamilton-Ouest–Ancaster–Dundas ND)
Mr. Jamie West (Sudbury ND)
Also taking part / Autres participants et participantes
Ms. Bonnie Lysyk, Auditor General
Clerk / Greffier
Mr. Christopher Tyrell
Staff / Personnel
Mr. Dmitry Granovsky, research officer,
Ms. Erica Simmons, research officer,