Quebec protests: Student rebel with a cause

By Lorraine Mallinder
Montreal, Canada

image captionSome worry Nadeau-Dubois has developed a cult of personality - but he knows how to work a crowd

Student protests against proposed tuition fee hikes in the Canadian province of Quebec have escalated into violence and mass arrests. As critics deride the movement, its spokesman Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois is out to prove he is a rebel with a real cause.

Mr Nadeau-Dubois, a 21-year-old history student at the University of Quebec in Montreal, has shot to prominence with his fiery rhetoric and bad-boy intransigence, exhibited at rallies and on chat shows alike.

The son of two environmental activists he grew up immersed in grassroots politics.

Though he is reviled by politicians, his rock star appeal has attracted crowds of admirers - and female fans who compare him to Hollywood star Ryan Gosling.

Legislators have just passed an emergency law, which sets rules for demonstrations and imposes heavy penalties on students disrupting classes. It is an attempt to rein in the chaos that has gripped the province for 100 days now.

Daily scenes have ranged from light-hearted nude demonstrations to violent clashes with riot police resulting in around 2,000 arrests.

"Now we're fighting for the right to fight," says Mr Nadeau-Dubois.

Mr Nadeau-Dubois represents Classe, the province's most militant student group, which has nearly 80,000 strikers in its ranks.

In his opinion, the emergency law is nothing less than an act of war.

"We feel angry and betrayed by this government," he says.

'Maple spring'?

Quebec, which has one of the strongest social safety nets and some of the lowest university tuition fees in North America, may seem like a curious setting for a student revolution.

After a proposed increase of roughly 75%, tuition would still be among the lowest in the country.

The students' critics describe the protesters as "enfants-rois", or spoiled kids, and reject the heroic moniker some have attached to the movement.

The term "Maple spring" rankles with those who feel conflict over already low tuition rates does not merit comparison with the life-and-death uprisings against violent tyrannical regimes in the Middle East.

image captionThe protests have attracted tens of thousands of students

Protesters have merged "a sense of justification borrowed from the Arab Spring… with the destruction-is-fun atmosphere of the Vancouver hockey riot," the Toronto-based Globe and Mail declared recently , in a piece urging provincial Premier Jean Charest not to give in to the protesters' demands.

What began as a student cause has broadened to include environmental protesters and the remnants of last year's Occupy movement.

"The fight against tuition increases is only symptomatic of a bigger disease," says Mr Nadeau-Dubois.

"Now we have the chance to merge all this anger that has been accumulating."

Pundits who have mocked the protests as an aimless, angsty strike against "the man" are misguided, Mr Nadeau-Dubois says.

"Quebec has always had a solid system of social justice, free health care and a partially-free public education system," he says.

But since coming to power in 2003, he says, the Liberal government has eaten away at the province's generous social provisions.

Now, Montreal could be undergoing its "Seattle moment" writes Patrick Lagace , in reference to the anti-globalisation protests of 1999.

The province's left-leaning tendencies, rooted in its nationalist movement, have recently been channelled into a range of single-issue protests, such as opposition to the shale gas industry, he writes.

Yet Mr Nadeau-Dubois has the analytical skills and intellectual depth to lead this "evolution of the anti-globalisation movement of the late 90s", says Martin Petitclerc, a historian at the University of Quebec who taught Mr Nadeau-Dubois last year.


Mr Nadeau-Dubois' ability to work the crowd was in evidence at an environmental rally last month.

"They treat the students of Quebec like hooligans… but we are not violent," he declared, jabbing a finger into the air. "It is they who are violent!"

The crowd of tens of thousands went wild.

But Mr Nadeau-Dubois also has his detractors.

Some of his critics accuse him of encouraging violence among strikers and of negotiating with the government in bad faith.

Gilbert Lavoie, a columnist with Quebec-based Le Soleil suggests that Nadeau-Dubois ducks his leadership responsibilities under the pretext that he is a mere spokesman for his coalition with no control over its members.

Others say that he is under the sway of powerful union leaders who want to bring down the government, and a Facebook page calling for him to step down has more than 13,000 members.

Some worry that he is turning the movement into a one-man show.

"Even within the student movement, there has been debate over the cult of personality that has developed around him," says Lea Clermont-Dion, another activist.

"A lot of importance has been attached to him because of his charisma and his eloquence," she says.

"If he's become a sex symbol, that's all well and good, but I think it's ridiculous."

Mr Nadeau-Dubois has taken to the spotlight like a duck to water, answering his critics with remarkable calm in televised appearances.

Is there a risk the power might go to his head?

"I still consider myself a humble militant," Mr Nadeau-Dubois says.

"Obviously all the attention has taken me by surprise. It's ironic that the people in government and public opinion have given me power and influence. But, it's not my power.

"We are going to inherit very big problems in the next decade, economic, political and environmental. We have to be able to learn freely without the pressure of being indebted. That's the reason why we're fighting."

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