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Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, right, chats with supporters after announcing his candidacy earlier this month for the upcoming provincial by-election in the Montreal riding of Gouin. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, right, chats with supporters after announcing his candidacy earlier this month for the upcoming provincial by-election in the Montreal riding of Gouin. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Maple Spring protest leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois enters Quebec politics Add to ...

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the new kid in Quebec politics, is, of course, a sovereigntist. But Mr. Nadeau-Dubois is in no rush for an existential showdown with Canada.

Younger Quebeckers may not talk about it, but for many in the political class, independence remains the ultimate goal.

“The independence issue has to be framed in a totally new way,” Mr. Nadeau-Dubois said in an interview after announcing last week he will be a candidate for Québec Solidaire and will seek a leadership role in the left-wing party.

Globe editorial: Quebec’s new kid on the political block

The carré rouge – the red-cloth square he wore as a symbol of the Maple Spring student protests – is gone. In its place, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois wears the blue blazer of an aspiring politician. “In five years, I have changed,” he said. “I am more mature, more experienced. I have a better understanding of Quebec.”

He is entering electoral politics in the hope of breathing new life into Québec Solidaire, which won three seats in the 125-seat Quebec legislature in 2014. Those three seats have previously been Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire will be targeting PQ seats in 2018.

Since his announcement last week, Québec Solidaire has picked up close to 5,000 new members.

“We have to get out of this toxic discussion in Quebec right now,” he said, acknowledging that forever pushing for a third referendum, which Quebeckers overwhelmingly do not want, is a losing strategy.

“What we should be discussing instead is what could we do democratically if we had all the powers,” he said. “I think what we need to do first is have a really democratic process, to have a discussion about what is this Quebec country that we want to build.”

On issues of the day, such as Quebec’s identity debate, which has singled out Muslims, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois thinks the province should move on, explaining that prolonging the debate “has been quite harmful to the Muslim community.”

On language, he thinks even English Quebeckers recognize the need for laws protecting French in the province, because minority cultures the world over are in a defensive mode in the face of “omnipresent” U.S. culture.

The 26-year-old may be a rookie in electoral politics, but his name is familiar to Quebeckers, dating from the 2012 Maple Spring protests against an 82-per-cent tuition hike.

In launching his partisan career, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois took swipes at “the political class that has ruled Quebec” for the last 30 years, lumping the PQ together with the Quebec Liberal Party.

The reaction from PQ luminaries was incendiary.

Pierre St-Paul Plamondon, a rising PQ star, who himself recently delivered a report suggesting the PQ is out of touch with the concerns of Quebeckers, said it was “very unfair” of Mr. Nadeau-Dubois to equate the PQ with the Liberals.

Mr. Nadeau-Dubois said he was surprised at the PQ reaction, while admitting he may have “ruffled some egos.”

“What I was saying was that in the last 30 years, things have not got better in Quebec,” he said, referring to when Jacques Parizeau became PQ leader and embraced free trade with the United States.

While expressing “respect, admiration even” for much of what Mr. Parizeau accomplished, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois said, “Thirty years ago was the start of the shift of the PQ, to neo-liberalism in Quebec.”

Since 2012, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois has completed his BA and MA in sociology at Université du Québec à Montréal. His master’s thesis was on the role of the state. Mr. Nadeau-Dubois believes the state, not the market, must set priorities and provide funding for education, health care and infrastructure.

His book, Tenir tête (Standing Up), won the Governor-General’s award for French-language non-fiction in 2014 and he donated his $25,000 prize to opponents of the proposed Energy East pipeline to carry Western crude oil across Quebec to a New Brunswick port.

The Quebec Liberals and PQ blow hot and cold on the issue of new pipelines through the province, at times in favour, at times against, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois noted, but after touring Quebec in the fall to take the pulse of the province, he is convinced opposition to Energy East runs deep.

In his campaign, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois hopes to emulate Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, building a large base of the disaffected.

Mr. Sanders relied on issues touching people, such as the downsides of free trade, new pipelines and the call for a $15 minimum wage, along with social media, and worked with a variety of citizen groups.

Mr. Nadeau-Dubois hopes Québec Solidaire can offer the same sort of “simple, coherent program, easy to understand” to improve its score in 2018.

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