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Laurentian University filed for creditor protection in February after declaring it was weeks away from being unable to meet payroll.Gino Donato/The Globe and Mail

A committee of the Ontario Legislature has asked for a Speaker’s warrant to force Laurentian University to hand over documents that may shed light on the causes of its financial meltdown.

The standing committee on public accounts took the rare step of seeking a warrant after Laurentian declined to comply with requests from the Auditor-General to hand over documents and e-mails.

The issue will be brought before MPPs at Queen’s Park on Thursday so it can be debated before the House rises for the holidays.

Laurentian University, located in Sudbury, Ont., filed for creditor protection in February after declaring it was weeks away from being unable to meet payroll. The university owed nearly $100-million to the banks and had more than $300-million in liabilities.

The university has since taken steps to restructure under the Companies Creditors Arrangement Act, a first for a publicly funded university. More than 100 tenured faculty lost their jobs, as did roughly 100 other staff. Enrolment has plummeted as 69 programs were cut and some students moved elsewhere.

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In April, the public accounts committee asked the Auditor-General to conduct a value-for-money audit of Laurentian’s operations from 2010 to 2021.

Michael Parsa, a Conservative MPP on the public accounts committee, said the university has since been given every opportunity to comply with the legislature’s wishes, but has stymied efforts to uncover documents the auditor says may shed light on its financial plight. He called the university’s conduct a direct challenge to the committee and to the authority of Parliament.

Laurentian has argued that some of the documents are subject to solicitor-client privilege and need not be handed over. The university is challenging an application from the Auditor-General to compel disclosure of some privileged information in Superior Court and is still awaiting a ruling.

Laurentian president Robert Haché was called before the committee last week, but his answers did not seem to resolve the matter.

Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk, who appeared at the committee Wednesday, said her office had never previously encountered anything comparable to the level of pushback it received from Laurentian.

In her update on the special audit last week, Ms. Lysyk wrote that Laurentian employees were discouraged from speaking freely with members of her office and were unable to provide access to documents without concerns about being reprimanded. She described a “culture of fear” at the university when it came to responding to requests from her office.

She said Laurentian had refused to provide information it claims is subject to solicitor-client privilege, but has also declined to provide non-privileged information, arguing that reviewing the documents would be too resource-intensive. Ms. Lysyk said her office sought the e-mails of senior administrators – standard practice in many audits – but was turned down by the university.

“As a consequence, our office is not being provided with timely, unfettered and direct access to all information needed to conduct our audit,” Ms. Lysyk wrote.

In response to the committee’s decision Wednesday, Laurentian said in a statement that it respects and understands the committee’s mandate.

“The university has authorized and encouraged all staff to participate in interviews with the Auditor-General of Ontario. We have also granted her office direct access to our entire financial database, enrolment system, an extensive amount of documents, and are endeavouring to provide all non-privileged documents,” the statement said.

NDP MPP France Gélinas said it’s crucial that the Legislature gain access to information that could shed light on what went wrong at Laurentian. She said Northern Ontario residents are still shocked by what has happened to one of the region’s most important institutions.

“The level of anger and hatred toward the university is everywhere in my community,” said Ms. Gélinas, who represents the Greater Sudbury riding of Nickel Belt.

“When we don’t know what’s going on, we assume the worst,” she said. “We need this independent third party to shed a light.”

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