When Laurentian University abruptly filed for insolvency last year, the impact of the Sudbury, Ont., school's financial woes reverberated throughout the region – jobs were cut, educational programs were lost, the local economy took a hit and even the campus pool that served many residents was shut down.
Emily Donato says the city she's lived in for years took a hard hit, one that it's still recovering from. The situation has prompted questions not only about what happened, but also on what the next provincial government will do to support those still recovering from the fallout.
"It's more than just Laurentian, it's a community," says the 57-year-old who teaches nursing at the school.
"I think that the province needs to really take a look at what's going on in Sudbury and how it affects the surrounding northern and rural areas as far as the resources that it was able to provide that are not there."
The impact of Laurentian University's financial troubles is one of the key issues currently affecting residents in this part of northern Ontario, Donato says, while health care and transportation are also priority areas.
Laurentian laid off nearly 200 staff and faculty members and axed dozens of programs, including an in-demand bilingual midwifery program, after abruptly filing for insolvency.
The cuts had a "domino effect" on the economy and prompted some to leave the city to pursue work or education elsewhere, Donato says. Meanwhile, a cloud of uncertainty still hangs over the school, which remains under creditor protection until the end of May, she says.
The situation at Laurentian has turned post-secondary education into an unavoidable election issue in northern Ontario, alongside perennial issues such as support for industry and mining, said Stéphanie Chouinard, who teaches political science at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont.
"To the community, the way the program cuts were carried out at Laurentian felt like a betrayal," particularly for the francophone community, which was disproportionately affected by the elimination of programs not offered elsewhere in the region, she said in French.
Recent reports from Ontario's auditor general and French language services commissioner reinforced that feeling, and the province has been "extremely slow" to respond to proposals to replace some of the eliminated French-language programs, Chouinard said.
The auditor general found Laurentian could have done more to seek financial help from the government. The French language services commissioner found the school breached the French Language Services Act in cutting 72 programs, including 29 in French, and the province could have done more to save them.
The Progressive Conservative government last year promised to save Laurentian's bilingual midwifery program, and English-language students have since been able to transfer to a program at McMaster University or Toronto Metropolitan University. No other such program in French is offered in the province.
The Liberals have promised to "invest in the ongoing sustainability" of Laurentian while the New Democrats have said they'd return a midwifery program to Sudbury if elected next month.
The Tories will have to answer for their handling of the Laurentian "debacle," and for the fact that multiple ministries and oversight bodies were "completely disconnected" from the situation, Chouinard said.
Overall, regions such as northern Ontario haven't been a priority for Doug Ford's government, which caters largely to a suburban audience, Chouinard said. What's more, the Sudbury area in particular is a New Democratic Party stronghold, and the Tories know there are few votes to be won there, she said.
While Ford has lavished attention on the Golden Horseshoe's industrial sector, particularly the auto industry, there has been comparatively "very little action" on mining, a key economic engine for northern Ontario, she said.
The Tories announced a critical minerals strategy in March, laying out a five-year roadmap meant to connect the resource-rich north with manufacturing in the south and boost the province's electric vehicle and battery production. The NDP pointed out Ford hasn't lived up to his 2018 promise of immediately developing the Ring of Fire, a mineral-rich region 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont.
Danny Whalen, president of the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities, said having a critical minerals strategy in place is crucial to growing the province's green economy and cementing the region's role in it.
Housing and health care, including mental health and opioids addictions, are also top of mind for the federation. And transportation – both on roads and by rail – is a major concern in northern Ontario, said Whalen, who serves as a city councillor in Temiskaming Shores.
"It's not an issue of inconvenience ... it's the fact that people are dying on the highways at an alarming rate," he said.
The Progressive Conservatives have vowed to widen parts of several highways, including highways 69, 11 and 17, and rebuild Highway 101 through Timmins, Ont. The NDP and Liberals have similarly promised to move ahead with certain highway projects in northern Ontario.
The Tories have also promised to reinstate passenger rail service between Toronto and Timmins by the mid-2020s. The NDP, which is also pledging to restore and extend the Northlander rail line if elected, has criticized Ford for failing to fulfil a similar promise made during the 2018 campaign.
The NDP have also said they'd guarantee that northern residents won't have to wait more than 14 days to be paid back after health-related travel. The Liberals said they'd annually review the health travel grant to ensure it keeps up with rising costs.
Dennis Landry, a Sudbury resident, said northern Ontario needs to be part of the broader conversation on transportation.
"If I have to go to the Sault Sainte Marie for business, I have to drive. Or if I fly, logically, I'm flying to Toronto and then to the Sault. A direct flight is so onerous in terms of costs," said Landry, 50.
Landry, who owns a business in television and film production, also raised the Laurentian restructuring as a concern, citing the loss of programs that fed local industries.
He pointed to environmental science programs that trained people to work in the region, and a film program from which he hired several employees. "That's a pool of talent that's gone now," he said.
Landry said he hoped to hear commitments on provincewide issues such as health care and long-term care during the campaign, but also on matters affecting the region more directly.
"There's always a sense that northern Ontario is a little bit forgotten," he said. "The bottom line is we represent such a small percentage of the population, it feels like we get forgotten."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2022.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press