SUDBURY -- The Ontario government is proposing legislation to make the Northern Ontario School of Medicine and the Université de Hearst independent universities.

The move comes after Laurentian University announced sweeping program and staffing cuts this week as part of its insolvency crisis. Université de Hearst is one of LU's federated universities.

And the move to make NOSM a university comes after the former mayors of Greater Sudbury and Thunder Bay called on the province to give the school independence.

Former Sudbury mayor Jim Gordon, who played a large role in the founding of the medical school in 2005, said April 6 that the province has to insulate NOSM from Laurentian University's insolvency process.

When the two-campus medical school was founded, Gordon said they approached Laurentian about founding a separate foundation to handle donations, but the university resisted.

Now, money donated to the medical school could be swallowed up during restructuring, if it hasn’t been spent already.

"I do not trust these people anymore," Gordon said. "They can't tell me, you know, where the money went."

He said the province needed to step in and grant NOSM university status so it doesn't get "dragged down" by Laurentian's insolvency.

"This school is in danger of being pulled down by what has happened," Gordon said. "But this is the people's medical school – it belongs to northern Ontario. It's not Laurentian's and it's not Lakehead's."

On Thursday, Ross Romano, Minister of Colleges and Universities, said the province would do just that.

"NOSM and Hearst provide specialized and important educational opportunities in northeastern Ontario. They are ready to take the next step in their development and maturity as institutions," Romano said in a news release.

"This new independence will ensure that each institution has the autonomy to grow in ways that more effectively support the access to quality education for students and communities in the region. Hearst will become Ontario's second stand-alone French language university, joining the Université de l'Ontario français. NOSM will become more agile and nimble to the changing needs of students as they help tackle the need for doctors and other health human resources in northern Ontario."

Already largely independent

As affiliated post-secondary institutions, NOSM and Hearst already operate largely independently. Both institutions are unique compared to other affiliates across Ontario as they already receive direct funding from the Ministry of Colleges and Universities.

The proposed legislation, if passed, would provide the institutions with independent governance and administration, and will empower them to expand and explore offering more programs in new communities across northern Ontario.

It would also provide a pathway for the institutions to grant their own degrees, and the government intends to engage the expert guidance of the Postsecondary Education Quality Assessment Board in moving toward this milestone.

"Operating as independent institutions with the ability to make choices about future partnerships and growth would allow them to better meet the needs and aspirations of their student population," Caroline Mulroney, Minister of Francophone Affairs, said in the release.

"With the Université de Hearst, Ontario now boasts two French-language universities, run by and for francophones, which will undoubtedly strengthen the opportunities for Ontarians to learn, live and thrive in the language of their choice."

Lakehead not happy

NOSM has has been shared by both Laurentian and Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, In a statement, Lakehead opposed the decision. 

"The Northern Ontario School of Medicine is an integral part of Lakehead University and our community," the statement said. "We know the north is stronger when we work together. This partnership, forged by the long-standing collaboration and support of so many local partners, has had a significant and positive impact on our region.

"We are concerned by today’s news, particularly in light of the absence of any consultation with the university," the statement continued. "We are in the process of reviewing this decision and determining its impacts. As we conduct this important work, our priority is protecting the interests of our students and our communities and ensuring that Northwestern Ontario is championed every step of the way."

NOSM is currently a not-for-profit corporation of Lakehead and Laurentian. Its students complete more than 40 per cent of their training in Indigenous, small rural and larger urban northern Ontario communities.

Université de Hearst was founded in 1953 and has been an affiliate of Laurentian University since 1963. In 2020-21, Hearst had approximately 160 full-time students enrolled at its three campuses in Hearst, Kapuskasing and Timmins.