Over 100 community leaders support Bishop’s at gathering in face of tuition hikes
By William Crooks
Local Journalism Initiative
In a show of support for Bishop’s University [BU], which is facing a governmental doubling of tuition – to $17,000 a year – for out-of-province students in 2024, over 100 local community leaders gathered for a press conference Oct. 31 in front of a packed crowd at Centennial Theatre. Student, political, educational, and business leaders took turns speaking in support of BU, punctuated by bouts of enthusiastic applause from well over 500 attendees.
“You have here in front of you some of the most influential members of the business, academic, culture-world and elected officials… from the region,” former Sherbrooke Mayor Jean Perrault began, “and we are here for you.” This new tuition measure threatens BU’s very identity, he continued, and is something the community simply cannot accept. He introduced BU Student Representative Council President Sophia Stacey, saying, “She’s from Alberta, studies at Bishop’s, and speaks French.” A ripple of appreciative laughter spread through the gathering.
“The provincial government has failed to consider the legacy of this proposal on [BU],” Stacey said. This undermines students’ autonomy to determine their future educational path. What is ultimately at stake is the loss of a “sense of belonging” to Quebec. BU’s presence does not threaten the French language in Montreal, Sherbrooke or Lennoxville.
BU plays an important educational, cultural, and economic role in the Townships, she continued, but the issue is also “deeply meaningful and personal” for her. Born in Alberta, she has grown to love the French culture. She chose BU for its intimate community, regional location and to strengthen her French, “as many of you did, as well,” she said to the gathering. The crowd erupted into applause.
Raïs Kibonge, Sherbrooke’s Acting Mayor, took the podium next. He emphasized that a community, to develop, needs a heart. The heart of Lennoxville is BU, he said. “We must all work together to ensure a prosperous future for [BU].” He hopes the government will allow an exception to their new legislation for BU, a small-sized university that has had an outsized impact on the region for over 180 years.
Jacques Demers, Mayor of Ste-Catherine de Hatley and Prefect of the Memphremagog MRC, then stepped up to the lectern. He said he was proud to be there and could sense the energy from the students and community members in the room. His children can speak English well, he insisted, though he admitted he did not speak English well enough to address the crowd with it. The Townships has both English and French CEGEPs and universities, which, he thinks, work together well. “There is no fighting in the region… [our bilingualism] is our strength.”
Sherbrooke University (UdeS) Principal Pierre Cossette then stood before the crowd. People tend to think BU and UdeS are in competition, he said, “but we’re good friends”. He emphasized UdeS and BU work together on numerous projects of which he is proud, and the region is lucky to have both an English and French university.
“The real goal now is talent,” he went on. BU is an extremely important facet of the region’s ability to attract talent and are a valued partner in that effort. He noted that this whole situation creates an “issue of perception”, and wanted BU students to know they are welcome in the Townships. “We greatly value your presence among us, and we hope it will continue for a long, long time.”
Sébastien Lussier, President of the Sherbrooke Chamber of Commerce, then addressed the gathering. He insisted BU has an important economic impact on the Townships, contributing $108 million a year in “direct spending”, $76 million in GDP, and $65 million in wages. The roughly 800 BU students from other provinces spend $21 million dollars in the Townships’ economy. BU provides 1,000 fulltime jobs to Quebecers and is the 8th largest employer in the region
All the community leaders on stage have signed an open letter in support of BU, Perrault explained, to Premier Francois Legault and The Minister of Higher Education Pascale Déry. More than 187 local community leaders signed in total, many of whom could not make the day’s event. The letter underlines the importance of BU to the Townships, an institution that has been a pillar of the community for 180 years. “Bishop’s is not a threat to the French language in Estrie,” he said with conviction, which was followed by a lengthy round of applause. The loss of BU would threaten the “vitality” of the region, and they are asking the government to exempt BU from the new tuition measure.
Speaking last was Sébastien Lebel-Grenier, BU Principal and Vice-Chancellor, who took the stage to a standing ovation. “This is not about me,” he began, “it’s about all of us.” In a moment of need, it is amazing to see so many of the community together in one place, he said. “We are a community that is stronger because we work together.” He thanked the community leaders for their support.
Perrault urged everyone not to forget to write the CAQ’s Estrie representatives to demonstrate the community’s solidarity. “Together, we want to keep BU, and do not want it to close.”
After the conference, Lennoxville Borough Councillor Guillaume Lirette-Gélinas said it was very moving to see everyone gathered “to support this beautiful institution” and keep this “human-sized” organization the way it is.
Former BU Principal Michael Goldbloom said he was gratified to see such a response from the Sherbrooke community. He insisted that the issue is not merely a language one, but a community one. In his 15 years as BU Principal, he never saw the entire region’s community come together like this “in such a forceful way”. “I have to believe the government is going to listen.”
When asked what the government should do instead, Goldbloom is in favour of incentives, such as funding French programs in English universities, rather than restrictions. The simplest thing for the government to do, at this point, would be to withdraw the whole measure, he continued. “[It] doesn’t make sense for anybody, frankly.” The objectives that they have set will not be achieved by this measure. People need to recognize that the threat to BU is “existential”; he doesn’t believe the university can survive if this proposal is not rescinded. “All they are going to do is destroy a university that has been here for 180 years… it’s totally irresponsible.”