By Laura Sky
On a cold winter morning in 2004, I received a phone call from the then-president of Laurentian University. I wept. I was to be presented with an honorary doctorate in recognition for my work as a documentary filmmaker. I was honoured to be recognized by a university community I held in such high esteem.
I stumbled through tears and laughter, trying to maintain my composure. In my earlier life, I had been a university dropout. As a documentarian, I was self-taught. I was driven by my commitment to social justice and my desire to live my life as an artist and an advocate.
Given my strong commitment to participatory research and documentary production, I had previously been invited to contribute as a guest lecturer and mentor in a variety of courses at Laurentian. I loved my time in those classrooms, engaged in animated conversations over many long cups of strong northern tea. Learning, teaching and advocacy were intertwined at this remarkable university. I felt right at home.
I had the opportunity to join forces with various interdisciplinary programs. Their research and learning activities highlighted the university’s relationships in Northern Ontario.
This was my idea of true learning — mutual learning, shared with teachers, learners and members of the community at large.
I first brought a rough cut of How Can We Love You, the documentary with and about women living with metastatic breast cancer, to Laurentian classrooms and local support groups to test screen the work-in-progress. I relied on this community for feedback as we edited the film and prepared to send it out to the world. When the film was finished, we launched the completed documentary at Science North.
I will never forget the arrival of a big yellow school bus bringing a large group of Indigenous women from Manitoulin Island to join the event. The spirit of Laurentian, the spirit of Sudbury and the north was in the room.
One project led to another and soon we were involved with research and production for Recovering Love, a participatory documentary exploring issues related to women’s experience of substance use and trauma. We worked in partnership with local programs and agencies, and again with Laurentian.
One Saturday night, we filled Fraser Auditorium with supporters for the project hosted by Laurentian administrators, students and faculty. Ronnie Hawkins and his band performed for a very enthusiastic audience. The whole hall rocked.
With the technical assistance of Laurentian faculty and students, we filmed at a nearby rural retreat, documenting the struggles and courage of these Sudbury women and their families. The Laurentian folks had no difficulty leaving their classrooms and joining the retreat participants, sharing mutual respect and trust.
Again, we test screened the work-in-progress at the university and in the community. Again, we launched the completed film at Science North. We celebrated our commitment to the health and well-being of these remarkable women and their children.
This was my idea of true learning.
These events celebrated relationships rooted in innovation, inclusion and diversity — all real-life values that were woven into Laurentian University’s identity at that time.
When we gathered together we met as peer-students, professors, researchers and community advocates in animated conversation, sharing our curiosity and building bold ideas.
I was proud of my association with a university community of such vision and strength. Our lives were made richer for the experience. We had so much to offer one another.
Now, so much of that vision has been betrayed and destroyed. The administrative leadership, the governance and oversight structures, as well as the provincial government have stolen opportunities from all participants at Laurentian and the communities they have served. They have failed the history and strengths of this remarkable institution.
Laurentian University is not simply a corporate entity, modelled on the worst aspects of private enterprise. This university had provided a vibrant, innovative and profoundly human service in this northern region.
The heart and spirit of Laurentian was invested in the meaning of relationships that honoured commitment to interdisciplinary, intercultural and intergenerational learning.
I say it is time to resist, to take back the right to authentic learning relationships. I urge all those who have created the Laurentian community to peel back the rhetoric of false promises offered by current deceitful leadership. A theft is occurring — stealing opportunities, historic relationships and the building of knowledge. Now let us stand together to protect and advance the vision and achievements of a university that served its community with honour and pride.
This is my idea of true learning.
Laura Sky is an award-winning documentary filmmaker who has produced and directed more than 35 documentaries. In 2004, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from Laurentian University for her achievements as “one of Canada’s most distinguished documentary filmmakers.”