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Ontario legislature votes to compel Laurentian to hand over documents tied to insolvency claim

Sudbury -

While the Ontario legislature is often a fractious place, MPPs from all parties were united Thursday when it came to getting to the bottom of why Laurentian University declared insolvency in February.

A vote on whether to issue a Speaker's Warrant to compel LU to hand over documents covered by solicitor-client privilege passed easily, with members of all parties expressing their outrage at the university's resistance.

Massive program cuts and layoffs were enacted after the university declared insolvency Feb. 1, under the Companies's Creditors Arrangement Act. Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk has said the documents are essential to value-for-money audit she is conducting. Laurentian counters the right to keep them private is a fundamental rule of law. 

MPPs, who gave Laurentian until Feb. 1, 2022, to comply, rejected arguments that the warrant amounted to interference in an ongoing case in the Superior Court of Justice.

Issuing such warrants is rare. The last time it happened was in 2012, when Ornge founder Chris Mazza was forced to appear in front of MPPs who were looking into financial irregularities at the air ambulance service.

In this case, the dispute centres on whether Laurentian University has to hand over privileged documents to Lysyk. The auditor general argues legislation requires the university to comply; Laurentian counters the law is not explicit, and forcing them to surrender the documents would violate the constitution.

LU and Lysyk ended up in court over the dispute, and a hearing was held Monday in front of Geoffrey Morawetz, the chief justice of the Superior Court Justice.

In a statement Thursday, Laurentian said the legislature is interfering in an ongoing court case, and it can't comply with the warrant because it is under court orders to keep them private until Morawetz releases his decision.

"This is a clear attempt to pre-empt and interfere with an existing court process," the statement said. "Further, the university is gravely concerned that compliance with a warrant would put it, and its officers, directors, and employees, in contempt of a court order."

Conservative MPP Michael Parsa rejected the idea that the warrant is out of line.

"Mr. Speaker, let me be very clear: the question we have before us today is about the right of the committee and the right of this Parliament to compel the delivery of documents," Parsa said.

"This is not about any cases before any other courts. This is not about the right of the auditor general to compel the delivery of documents. That is a separate matter before another court, and it would not be appropriate for members of this house to comment on that case."

Instead, Parsa said the issue was whether the legislature had the authority to compel Laurentian to surrender the documents.

"This house must assert its … ancient authority, older than this country itself, to command the production of these documents," he said.

"This right is integral to the very nature of this parliament and it is in the public interest that the committee get to the bottom of Laurentian University's insolvency."

He outlined attempts to get the school to comply, beginning in April and ending in November, when lawyers for LU said they didn't accept the idea the committee had the power to force them to give it the documents.

"I think all members will agree that this is simply not the case," Parsa said. "All of us members know that parliament is the sole authority of its own business. There's a long history as old as our system of parliament itself, which maintains the right of parliament to any document."

MPP France Gelinas, the NDP member for Nickel Belt, said she was appearing with a "heavy heart."

"I want to thank all of my fellow MPPs who worked together really hard," Gelinas said. "We explored every option possible to try to get our work done …Unfortunately, we were not successful. It didn't matter how hard we tried."

She was in the legislature when the warrant was issued in the Ornge case and said she never thought it would happen again. But Laurentian has forced their hand.

"If you disobey this warrant, you may be subject to punishment, including imprisonment," Gelinas said. "That we have to go to such a drastic measure does not make me happy, but we have to do this. We have no other option."

Liberal MPP Amanda Simard said it was important to find out the extent "of mismanagement" at the university.

"You don't go bankrupt overnight, right?" Simard said. "It is very important that we have a strong Laurentian and that (the university's reputation) is rebuilt."


This story has been corrected to include attribute the proper quotes from Liberal MPP Amanda Simard. Top Stories

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