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Charismatic Quebec student spokesman 'in a tough position' Add to ...

Girls and television hosts fawn over him and a movie director called him sexy. He’s on the cover, fist raised, of the next issue of Quebec’s main news magazine. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois has become the rock star in front of Quebec’s student movement, but he’s always insisted he’s a simple spokesman rather than a leader.

To his critics, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois is a radical barely worthy of a seat at the table, or not nearly radical enough. But as the student strike wears into its 13th week, friends, family and teachers describe him as a simple idealist with a deep egalitarian streak and a talent for leading others.

Events this week – the metro smoke bombing that threw Montreal into chaos at rush hour and the mass rejection of an agreement negotiated by student leaders – cast doubt on whether Mr. Nadeau-Dubois and the others control much beyond the spotlight.

Stung by accusations he’s turning his movement into a one-man show, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois does not give interviews that stray into personal matters. But those close to him say the 21-year-old history student has a Marxist streak and believes in the power of protest, but is no radical, which may explain why the movement’s fringes are splintering off. In short, he’s not trying to overthrow capitalism, but he thinks it needs a major redistributive overhaul. And he thinks street protest will make it happen.

“He’s in a really tough position, and he knows it,” says long-time friend Alejandra Zaga. “He takes criticism well, I find he’s been very strong. It’s not just from government, but it’s internally, and from the population. He’s being bombarded by stress, and it’s not possible to remain completely indifferent.”

Born in Montreal (“He’s as Montreal as it gets,” his father Gilles Dubois says), Mr. Nadeau-Dubois was raised in activist circles and steeped from an early age in union politics. He used to bring his homework to his father’s union meetings, but often ended up paying more attention to debates.

Even as a boy, he’d try to use his oratorical and debating skills to extend curfew or extract some other parental concession.

“He was always contesting authority but he never really rebelled in delinquent ways,” says Mr. Dubois, an environmentalists who works as a planner in the provincial health system. “He’s no vandal, he doesn’t value violence. He is one to call out and say, ‘Follow me.’”

He has no shortage of followers. On the street, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois can scarcely walk a block or sit down to share a pitcher of beer in his favourite east-end watering hole without being set upon by young, mostly female, admirers.

“Just getting into the front door for a cocktail takes forever now,” says Ms. Zaga, a 23-year-old environmental studies student at McGill.

It’s not all love, however. Mr. Nadeau-Dubois has received death threats and sharp, personal rebukes from talk radio hosts and the Education Minister.

Lucie Hamel was Mr. Nadeau-Dubois’s high-school math teacher at Collège Regina Assumpta, a highly rated private school in Montreal. She recalls a teenager who was bright and well-spoken, but not radical.

“He was articulate, curious and he loved to debate. He already had his opinions but he liked to exchange ideas,” Ms. Hamel says. “And he was a very good orator.” Still, she says, “he wasn’t a rebel.”

He was voted class president, sang in the Christmas choir and was chosen to take part in the Forum for Young Canadians, which sends delegations from across Canada to Ottawa for an insider look at how the country’s run. Mr. Nadeau-Dubois was elected “prime minister.”

After he graduated from high school, Ms. Hamel wrote him a letter of recommendation for a Canada Millennium Scholarship. “Gabriel is a born leader!” she wrote. It was 2008. He got the scholarship.

Montreal slipped into a deeper state of chaos this week when smoke bombs paralyzed the city’s metro system, sending tens of thousands of commuters into the street at rush hour. The mayhem followed a bloody riot last weekend that left three students with serious injuries. After 13 weeks of protest over a tuition hike, many Quebeckers are questioning the state of law and order and leadership in their province.

While much blame has been heaped upon Premier Jean Charest, it’s far from evident the three main student leaders, including Mr. Nadeau-Dubois, have any say in stopping violence or ending the dispute.

The collapse of the agreement would be seen as an abject failure of leadership in most organizations, but the student leaders have avoided any call for resignation.

Now a new fringe group far more radical than the CLASSE, called Force étudiante critique, is under investigation for the metro smoke bombs. A manifesto on the group’s website targets Mr. Nadeau-Dubois, describing him as a “politician-automaton” who has put the student strike up for sale. His unforgiveable sins included reaching a compromise with the government last weekend and speaking out (with some reluctance) against violent protest tactics.

As the voice of the most strident of the three main organizations on strike, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois has been forced to answer for violent acts. He’s claimed innocence, saying in an interview that “those are not means we use, they are means we’d never use.” Now he’s clearly not radical enough for some students.

And criticism isn’t just from the most radical outsiders. Last week, news magazine L’Actualité infiltrated a key decision-making meeting of Mr. Nadeau-Dubois’s group, which boasts a flat, democratic structure where decisions are made collectively.

Far from assuming a leadership position, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois was relegated to a seat in the back of the room during key debates, including a vote of confidence in him. He survived the vote, but he wasn’t even allowed to speak and briefly left the meeting in a huff.

Mr. Nadeau-Dubois may have trouble holding radical students, but he certainly holds a room. When he speaks of a revamped social order that would put workers and the poor ahead of profit, company bosses and the Quebec Liberal Party, people listen. It’s a “struggle of resistance” that will go on for years, he said in one speech delivered last month.

His allies may insist he's no radical, but he's not shy about using the word: “It’s time for a larger, more profound, and yes, more radical reflection on the direction Quebec has taken in recent years.”

Tuition is only a start, he says.

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