Laurentian’s Francophone students feel like their academic career is in limbo

Like others impacted by the axing of many French-language programs at Laurentian University on April 12, students Kiara Duval and Dominic Belisle are feeling lost and abandoned.

But Belisle told he needs only a few syllables to describe the thoughts these cuts are suggesting to him.

“Règlement 17,” he said.

Règlement 17 was part of the regulations set forth by the Ontario Ministry of Education and adopted in 1912 by the Conservative government of Premier Sir James P. Whitney. The regulation prohibited the use of French "as a language of instruction and communication" in bilingual schools in the public and separate systems.

“Right now, what's the (sitting) government? The Conservative government,” said Belisle. “And it's their fault that the programs in French were cut. It's technically a different situation, but it's the same thing, it's the oppression of Francophone education. It's the same theme.”

And while Belisle watched helplessly as his friends and professors were stripped of their careers, he may not have felt the pain of the moment, but that is because it is a pain he felt two years ago, when this first happened to him.

“In 2018, I was in my second year of science politique (political science), and they (Laurentian University) were starving the program. They were cutting funding; they were not looking for any professors.”

At the time, Belisle was given an ultimatum, as he refers to it. 

“Leave the school, they'll give you your transcript, you go to Ottawa, you go to ‘whatever’ French university and get a quality education. Or, you stay, and the department will give you some sort of courses, one-on-one or let you have a sessional instructor.”

In his second year, having moved from Cochrane to Sudbury to pursue his dream of attending Laurentian the way his mother had, his grandfather had, the way much of his family had, Belisle did not have the ability to just pick up and move. 

So, he stayed, but somewhat begrudgingly. Belisle moved from the French-language political science program to a program called Droit et politique (law and politics). 

“I give the institution almost $20,000 of my money for quality education, and I get spit in the face by that.”

He did lose more on April 12, however. 

“I worked for the university and as a research assistant, well, I used to. I lost two of my jobs,” said Belisle.

Kiara Duval, a second-year Francophone zoology student, and the president of the Zoology Club said when she first came to visit Laurentian from her home in Kingston, she fell in love with the location, the personal touch, but mostly, the language.

“I loved the campus, being in nature on its own lake, and all the opportunities that provided for field and lab work,” said Duval, “However, one of the most important things for me was studying in French, and this was one of the main reasons I chose to take the zoology program at Laurentian University over Guelph. I also spoke to some professors before my acceptance and loved that they made you feel like a person and not just another number or enrolment statistic.”

Duval also felt the loss that echoed across the city, losses that arrived via an inbox.

“I heard about the termination of my program through the email sent out to us at 2:15 p.m. on Monday,” said Duval. “I was shocked at just how many programs had been cut, and how many of those were programs that I know people enrolled in. My program was pretty far down the list and I was completely shocked to see it there, as well as my minor also being cut. I honestly don't know what this means for my future.

“As someone who is planning on furthering my education in veterinary medicine, I'm incredibly worried about what this will do to my transcript and grades, and having to explain the mess this will cause on any future applications will for sure put me at a major competitive disadvantage.”

But it isn’t just the mental toll of feeling like she has to completely rethink her future and career. It’s the emotional one as well. 

“Honestly, I'm devastated by what's happening,” said Duval. “I don't have a major or a minor right now, and all of my closest friends are either in the same boat or already transferred to other universities. We've been given close to no information, and what we have received has been confusing and vague.”

Not just that, but she notes the timing of the entire affair. 

“Getting this news on a day where I still had to write an exam and finding out my professor has been fired at the start of our testing period did not make things any easier. In my opinion, the entire situation was handled poorly and with very little regard for the students' or the professors' well-being.”

Duval added that the loss is a great one, and one that has a COVID insult added to the injury.

“Losing such a big part of both the Francophone community and the science community has taken a huge toll on me and my friends, a toll that mirrors that taken by almost every single student at Laurentian,” said Duval. “With the majority of us being off-campus due to COVID, we are mostly dealing with this alone. Laurentian has lost a huge part of its community, and the atmosphere that goes with it.”

Story by Jenny Lamothe, for the Local Journalism Initiative