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After cutting ties with Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University and Sudbury’s Laurentian University, the Northern Ontario School of Medicine will continue to lease space on both campuses.

The Northern Ontario School of Medicine will become an independent entity on April 1, dropping its 20-year affiliation with two universities.

The province announced the date on Friday, putting a positive spin on a move that was widely condemned across the North as wrong-headed when it was abruptly unveiled about a year ago without prior consultation.

The Northern Ontario School of Medicine University, as it will be known, is to become the first independent medical school in Canada able to grant degrees without a university affiliation.

All the rest of Canada’s medical schools are affiliated with universities.

Though the Northern Ontario School of Medicine is cutting ties with Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University and Sudbury’s Laurentian University, it will continue to lease spaces on both campuses and receive a $47.8-million operating grant from the province.

Dr. Sarita Verma, the medical school’s dean, said she is looking forward to a new era.

“This is a profound and historic moment for the (Northern Ontario School of Medicine) community, and its impact will be felt across Northern Ontario and beyond,” Verma said in a provincial news release.

In an interview last month, Verma said the school’s focus will remain on building up Northern Ontario’s supply of doctors.

“That will always be our 100-per cent,” mandate,” Verma said.

The school currently has spaces for about 65 medical students. Verma said she’d like to see that number bumped up to 100.

Critics of the move to make the Northern Ontario School of Medicine independent said they’re willing to give Verma the benefit of the doubt, but still have reservations.

“She is a smart and driven person, but there is only so much a person like that can do,” said Ontario NDP health critic France Gelinas.

Gelinas, a former Sudbury-area health-care administrator, said she’s worried about the stability of the medical school’s funding, and whether it could end up being backed by a private company that changes its focus.

“I’m also worried that (the medical school) is going to be the only one in Canada not affiliated with a university, without the administrative support universities can provide,” Gelinas said.

Meanwhile, the reason for severing ties with Lakehead and Laurentian remains unclear, Gelinas says.

Though some believe the catalyst was Laurentian’s widely publicized financial problems, Gelinas said she’s not so sure.

“Every time I ask (provincial officials) about it, they skate around it,” she said. “I never get a straight answer.”

Since the Northern Ontario School of Medicine was created two decades ago, it has graduated more than 700 doctors, with half of those choosing to work in Northern Ontario.

In regard to the medical school, a Lakehead University spokesman said earlier, “We look forward to supporting a future with (Northern Ontario School of Medicine) that builds on our mutual strengths.”

Also on Friday, the province announced that Universite de Hearst would also become independent on April 1, focussing on French-language studies. It had previously been affiliated with Laurentian.

“Ontario now has two French-language universities, by and for francophones, ensuring greater access to quality post-secondary education in French, and the vitality of our francophone communities,” Francophone Affairs Minister Caroline Mulroney said in the provincial news release.