On a clear evening in late April, the dimly lit interior of a resto-pub in Rimouski smells of beer and poutine. More than 100 people are here, a blur of blue jeans, tattoos, T-shirts, combat boots, and windbreakers. They chatter to each other, waiting for the man they hope will help them to a breakthrough in the coming provincial election.

The door swings open on Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois pushing a baby pram. Dressed in a navy blazer, blue shirt, and loafers, he seems an unlikely addition to this casual crowd. Parking the stroller by a table near the entrance, he carefully lifts his two-month-old daughter and hands her off to his partner, who begins to nurse her.

A former radical who helped lead a massive student strike in 2012 against rising tuition in Quebec, Nadeau-Dubois is today the parliamentary leader of Québec solidaire, a home for left-wing voters concerned about climate change, social justice, and the province’s drift to the right. The party designate to become premier if QS wins a provincial election this October, he is here to help nominate the local candidate—and he knows Rimouski will prove a big test of the party’s message. A mostly white, French-speaking town of not quite 50,000 located about 300 kilometres northeast of Quebec City, just off a two-lane highway that hugs the rugged shoreline of the Saint Lawrence River, it has been a Parti Québécois stronghold since 1994. But, after the incumbent was charged with sexual assault and announced he would not run again, the riding is in play, giving QS the chance to expand its seat count in the National Assembly beyond the ten it currently holds.

You might call Nadeau-Dubois an inclusive nationalist. Although QS wants to separate from Canada, it envisions future Quebec as a country created in tandem with the twelve First Nations who were here before the first French settlers ever arrived, as a country that encompasses all who live within its borders, no matter if they wear a hijab, turban, or kippah or speak a language other than French at home. Its vision is distinct from that of premier François Legault and his centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government, which took power in 2018 after a campaign premised on the argument that separation had become a distraction. (“Sovereignty is dead. If René Lévesque and Jacques Parizeau couldn’t do it, no one will succeed,” Legault said in 2016, referring to former PQ leaders.) Voters welcomed the premise, which would fundamentally change the way politics had been practised here for over forty years, effectively breaking the Liberal-PQ duopoly. No longer would the overriding question be whether to stay or to go. Quebec’s task, instead, would be to forge its own path within Canada.

Legault’s vision, however, is being realized at the expense of minority groups. In 2018, the CAQ won with a campaign built around national-identity issues and a pledge to significantly reduce immigration levels in the province. In 2019, it passed Bill 21, which prohibits public-sector workers—from judges to transit workers to teachers—from wearing religious symbols. Three years later, on the cusp of the current election campaign, the CAQ’s intolerance is again at the forefront, thanks to Bill 96, a law with stringent, unrealistic, and often invasive new protections for the French language. They include a requirement that newcomers learn French within six months of arriving in the province and, according to critics, give the Office québécois de la langue française, the province’s language regulator, power to enter businesses without a warrant and seize computers and cellphones on the basis of even an anonymous complaint that work is not taking place in French. For critics, it’s yet another attack on the English community and immigrants.

A formidable debater, confident, even cocky, Nadeau-Dubois has been one of those critics. He steps up to the lectern in the Rimouski pub, the just-named local QS candidate at his side. He spends the next eight minutes speaking in French while rarely looking down at his cue cards. The theme is clear: there is a need for a Quebec that is progressive and caring. He cites the disproportionate number of seniors who died from COVID-19. He calls out CAQ’s legacy of unfulfilled promises. “We’re told the middle class is fine, but that is not true, given the price for affordable housing, an increasing mortgage rate, and the growing cost for public transit. I’m here to tell you there is an alternative to the CAQ—and that alternative is Québec solidaire.”

Not once does Nadeau-Dubois mention the PQ, which has dropped so precipitously in the polls it has been dismissed as irrelevant by no less than its former leader Lucien Bouchard. Nor does he mention the provincial Liberals. Long a defender of minority rights in Quebec, the party’s relevance mainly depended on providing a big tent for Quebecers who wanted the province to remain in Canada. But, with CAQ refusing to wield the threat of separation, the Liberals have struggled to redefine themselves. Instead, Nadeau-Dubois sets up the coming battle as between the CAQ and QS, one that pits two visions of nationalism, covert and exclusive versus overt and inclusive, against each other. “I’m asking for your hope, faith, and confidence as we write a different story,” he concludes. “We are capable of uniting every region in the province—and you, you are the secret to every Québec solidaire victory.”

It sounds like a pipe dream, especially in a province where support for sovereignty is low, where QS is in third place just behind the Liberals, and where the anti-immigrant populism of Legault and his party is riding high in the polls. But QS believes that on election day, October 3, if the CAQ’s lead holds, a force capable of holding Legault to account will be more important than ever. “As Québec solidaire’s parliamentary leader and most prominent personality,” says Daniel Béland, a political sociologist and director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, “Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois has already proven adept at that. He knows how to get under François Legault’s skin.” This election may be a referendum on Legault. But it’s a test of Nadeau-Dubois as well.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois at a speaking event.

Born on May 31, 1990, Nadeau-Dubois—popularly known as GND—was the child of activists who split up when he was a year old. Raised in a working-class neighbourhood in east-end Montreal with two younger sisters, he shuttled between his parents’ homes. But, no matter where he slept, there were constants. A newspaper on the breakfast table every morning, either Le Devoir or La Presse, accompanied by political discussions.

With his mother, Lucie Nadeau, a labour lawyer who now sits as a judge, the little boy would sometimes attend protests where nonunionized workers fought for compensation for workplace injuries and for the right to unionize. His father, Gilles Dubois, then a vice-president of a major trade union who would later become an environmental activist, took him to evening union meetings, where he was supposed to do his homework in a corner of the room. Instead, he eavesdropped on often heated discussions and says he learned the importance of placing the collective over individual good. On May 1 every year, without fail, he and his father would attend the International Workers’ Day parade.

At ten, he ran in his first political campaign, this one to become president of his grade five class. He doesn’t remember his platform, but he does remember how he felt when he lost: “crushed.” Then, in his private Catholic high school, he took on authorities when he spoke up against a decision by school officials to appoint student representatives, arguing that they should instead be democratically elected. When the officials refused, Nadeau-Dubois kept up the pressure, including starting a newsletter that he distributed to students’ lockers. The next year, he claims, officials gave in.

Nadeau-Dubois’s rise as political leader began in March 2011, when then premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government announced that tuition fees in Quebec—the lowest in the country—would nearly double annually over five years, to $3,800. It claimed the hike was necessary, the result of years of tuition freezes that had contributed to the province’s universities being significantly underfunded compared to other Canadian institutions.

The news rocked the student movement, where many members considered low tuition fees both a defining aspect of Quebec society and a necessity to avoid large debts upon graduation. In response, a few groups formed a province-wide coalition, and on February 13, 2012, launching what would become known as the Maple Spring, or Printemps érable, students voted to strike. At the time, Nadeau-Dubois was twenty-one and studying history at the Université du Québec à Montréal. He became one of three student leaders thrust into the limelight, explaining strategy and calling out authorities during a protest that would last six months. Drawing on the example of his activist parents, he found himself increasingly comfortable in front of cameras and microphones. He was praised as a principled up and comer and seen by many as a natural leader. When Francine Pelletier, a journalist who has worked for both the CBC and Le Devoir, started on a documentary about three generations of nationalist leaders, Nadeau-Dubois emerged as the most charismatic. “Our team all thought the same thing,” she says. “He is not one of those olé, olé gung-ho, go-for-it-at-any-cost types. He has the capacity to reflect.”

Not everyone agreed. Nadeau-Dubois was caricatured by a Le Journal de Québec cartoonist as Osama “Gab” Laden, compared to Fidel Castro in letters to newspapers, and labelled an anarchist by a judge hearing a case in which he was accused of inciting students to ignore a court order. As the spokesperson of the most radical of the three student groups, Nadeau-Dubois was the fiery one and the most visible. He believed in what his members wanted, he says, because their activism was democracy at its purest. Sometimes, however, that fervency sparked social unrest and violence. At its height, more than 300,000 students refused to attend classes in universities and CEGEPs. The students, eventually joined by members of the public unhappy with the government in general, took to the streets each night, wearing a small red fabric square that had become the protest’s symbol, and clanging on pots and pans. Police would often break up the protests with bully sticks and rubber bullets.

Every day, Nadeau-Dubois walked out of his central-north Montreal apartment to a world where everyone recognized him. Some asked for his autograph. Teenage girls excitedly shouted out his first name. But there was anger, too, and death threats, sometimes up to five a week. He stopped taking public transit and closed his Facebook account. Once, when visiting Rimouski, a man launched a full water bottle at his forehead. It landed—hard. Nadeau-Dubois smiles tightly as he tries to describe what the attention felt like. “I was walking the streets, and half the people were cheering and half were insulting me,” he says. “It was like I entered that period of my life with a lot of innocence, with little guile, and it was brutal for me to realize that when you’re a young person and you challenge those in power, you enter a dynamic where things become really hard really fast.”

The students would not back down—despite legislation that imposed steep fines on anyone who blocked access to a school and that limited how people could protest. Eventually, under increasing pressure and with no end in sight to the strike, the Liberals called an election in 2012, a year earlier than required, on the gamble that there was a “silent majority” of law-abiding, hard-working taxpayers who supported them. The party lost to the PQ, which promptly cancelled the tuition increase but then tied future increases to the cost of living—at once a win, a draw, and a big political lesson for Nadeau-Dubois.

“We knew that social movements are not created overnight,” he replies. “This was one where it felt possible to make a difference.” The success of the student strike, according to his 2014 book on the protests, In Defiance, reintroduced him to sovereignty as an ideal. For him, it highlighted the importance of setting one’s own path. The political classes, both PQ and Liberal, could not be trusted to look after their youth, he believed, because no matter which party was in power, Quebecers always suffered the same policies. “We must remove the political class that has governed us for the past thirty years,” he said in 2017, “because they have betrayed Quebec.”

As a student firebrand who helped change the course of Quebec politics, Nadeau-Dubois learned another lesson about fame, namely that “every expression on your face, and every statement, even every word, that comes out of your mouth will be parsed, sliced, criticized.” The legacy of those years has been a suspicion that Nadeau-Dubois’s charisma is a bit too slick, that his radicalism is opportunistic. “If it’s opportunistic to communicate your values and vision in the most efficient way possible,” he says, “then I’m guilty. I have stayed true to my values, even as life has taken me in directions I did not expect.”

One of those unexpected directions emerged on May 29, 2017, two days before his twenty-seventh birthday, when Nadeau-Dubois was elected to the riding of Gouin, in the east end of Montreal, for Québec solidaire. He won it in a landslide, taking 69 percent of the vote. In the general election the following year, as Legault’s CAQ swept to power, QS gained traction too, increasing its share of seats from two to ten, including several outside of Montreal, and was, for the first time, granted official-party status. In March 2019, it was named the second opposition party, behind the Liberals and ahead of the PQ.

Nadeau-Dubois claims he never considered embarking on a political career so early. He wanted to establish himself as an academic first. Maybe start a family. He joined QS at the invitation of Françoise David, a prominent feminist who helped found the party in 2006. Nadeau-Dubois thought the opportunity too good to pass up. QS was built around principles he believed in, from environmental stewardship to pluralism, feminism, and, of course, sovereignty. Although the PQ had been the party for his parents’ generation, it never really articulated what political, social, and economic autonomy would look like. Instead, for nearly half a century, it was made up of an uneasy, delicate alliance of “independentists” from the left and right, held together only by their desire to create their own country. The first PQ premier Nadeau-Dubois could recall was Lucien Bouchard, a former member of prime minister Brian Mulroney’s cabinet. The old PQ, founded in 1968 by the magnetic, chain-smoking René Levesque, was something he only read about in history books.

If anything, the PQ has served, for Nadeau-Dubois, as a cautionary tale. How its progressive factions, resigned to the reality that an independent Quebec wasn’t going to happen, became disenchanted as the party doubled down on separatism seemingly to the exclusion of any other public policy. Indeed, the PQ appears to have become even more resolute as support has plummeted (“we do not back down, we do not deviate, we do not apologize, we do not change our minds,” PQ leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon reportedly said at a party event). Hoping to make strides as a contender for governing party, QS has worked hard to set its policies apart. It calls for a thirty-five-hour workweek, reduced fares on public transport, 50,000 new social-housing units, and an increase in home-care spending for seniors.

But Nadeau-Dubois has discovered the problem that bedevilled the PQ: How do you sell sovereignty to a population that may not want it? According to a province-wide poll by Mainstreet Research from June, the proportion of respondents in favour of sovereignty stands at 33 percent. Support is even lower with younger voters. Among eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds, only 27 percent want it. Even QS voters appear to be divided: according to the poll, just over half are against separating from Canada. For Nadeau-Dubois, the skepticism for sovereignty is a hurdle QS must overcome while making sure members don’t stray from their principles. “With us,” Nadeau-Dubois says, “it’s a question of sincerity and transparency—we believe we need another kind of government altogether, one that does away with fealty to a remote queen. We want to give power back to the people. To all people.”

Overcoming those hurdles, for Nadeau-Dubois, starts with repackaging sovereignty as a unifying vision. Horrified by Legault’s demonizing of minority communities, QS has transformed itself into a standard bearer for inclusion. “We want to go out into the field and show Quebecers that there is another nationalism in Quebec,” Nadeau-Dubois said in 2019, “there is another vision of Quebec identity.” Countering Legault was crucial to that message. With Nadeau-Dubois at the helm, the party is determined to see itself as the moral opposition.

There is no better example of this than when Nadeau-Dubois rose in the French-speaking National Assembly during question period—his first as parliamentary leader—on September 15, 2021. It had been two years since Legault’s government had passed Bill 21, which banned the wearing of religious symbols by public servants in a bid to protect the secular character of Quebec society. During those years, Nadeau-Dubois had watched Legault conflate support for the bill with support for Quebec values. “He shouldn’t assume he speaks for all,” Nadeau-Dubois said. “There are millions of Quebecers who are against Bill 21, who don’t support him or his government. There are millions of us who are tired of him pretending to be our saviour and redeemer. We are fed up with his sermons.” For Nadeau-Dubois, by deciding unilaterally what was best for the Quebec nation or even what the nation was, Legault had become the authoritarian father-in-chief—a direct steal, Nadeau-Dubois charged, from the playbook of Maurice Duplessis.

The barb went viral. Duplessis was the conservative, nationalist, and deeply Catholic Quebec premier who had presided for decades over a period in the province’s history known as “La Grande Noirceur,” or Great Darkness. With a Quebec-first mantra, a visceral hatred of unions, and a propensity to work in partnership with the church to keep people in their place, especially when it came to education and health care, Duplessis used the nationalist card to crush dissent. Only after he died, in 1959, did the province go through a reckoning that led to a separation of church and state and the definition of Quebec as a secular society.

Legault responded that Duplessis may have had his faults but at least he had defended the Quebec nation and wasn’t—using the English term—“woke” like Nadeau-Dubois. The younger man shot back that the premier had no right to summarily eject Quebecers from the nation because they disagree on Bill 21. To emphasize that point, Nadeau-Dubois, in a nod to the pot-banging protests of yore, tweeted a photo of himself holding a wok, with a French caption that stated he had no idea what Legault had against the frying pan. The debate took on a life of its own. PQ leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, trying to get in on the action, tweeted a photo of himself wearing a shirt that read, in French, “Neither woke, nor duplessiste. Indépendantiste.” Montreal mayor Valérie Plante told reporters she was saddened because “these words become insults where there is no room for dialogue.”

To Nadeau-Dubois, the “woke” debate cut to the very heart of what constitutes a Quebecer and was indicative of a government pandering to xenophobic tendencies—tendencies, according to Béland, that have been in play in Quebec for the past twenty years. In 2007, the village of Hérouxville introduced a code of conduct to ensure that prospective immigrants were up on the province’s behavioural standards. That was followed by a debate on what “reasonable accommodation” for minorities should look like. All of these were attempts to tie Quebec identity to narrow “pure laine” standards. Quebec, argues Béland, has often struggled to square its civic responsibilities with its ethnic nationalism. “The PQ moved towards the latter, and it is clear the CAQ has moved in that direction too,” he says. “Multiculturalism is now a dirty word, with some thinking that it is destroying social cohesion.”

Exclusion, insists QS, is the real fraying force. Indeed, the impact of Bill 21 became clear to many when much-loved teacher Fatemeh Anvari was fired, in December 2021, from her job teaching grade three in Chelsea, Quebec, due to her hijab. “Now we are seeing the concrete injustices the law engenders,” says Nadeau-Dubois, “like a young woman not being able to work in a school.”

With Bill 96, the government continues to retrench itself as the sole defender of Quebec’s collective identity, charges Nadeau-Dubois. To be sure, he and the rest of the QS caucus did vote in favour of it—as nationalists, they were determined to protect the right to work in French in a country where English is the common language. “There is no contradiction between declaring French as our common language and an uncompromising defence of minority rights,” he tells me. “In Quebec, real social justice means doing both.” He promises to challenge at least two of Bill 96’s provisions: the notion that services could be refused to immigrants if they do not learn French within six months of their arrival, which he considers inhumane, and the requirement that English CEGEP students take three additional French courses to graduate, which he says unfairly targets First Nations students who may not speak French and whose own languages are at risk.

Still, some federalist opponents don’t trust him, even if they support his stance on inclusion. In their eyes, his nationalism disqualifies him from representing broad swathes of the populace. Others seem more open. Lina El Bakir, a Quebec advocacy officer for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, appreciates Nadeau-Dubois’s defence of minority rights. “We are thankful there are politicians who take strong stands in support of people who provide so much to the future of Quebec but are prevented from doing so because of what they wear.” But Marwah Rizqy, the Liberal education critic, whose parents immigrated from Morocco, is unimpressed with Nadeau-Dubois’s stance on Bill 96. “That is not my Quebec. The Quebec that I envision is one that provides opportunity for people within a federation. Calling an opponent names in the National Assembly may generate headlines, but it does nothing for the level of political discourse.”

Nadeau-Dubois tries to assure worried anglophones that his party’s priorities do not revolve around language—that with a QS government, no one will ever be denied health care or legal services because they do not speak French. “François Legault has made it clear,” he told CBC News in June. “He wants to campaign on divisive issues. We want to campaign on climate change, on the housing crisis that is a huge challenge for Quebecers throughout the province, and on the inflation crisis. These are the things that matter.”

In 2016, four years after the protests ended, Nadeau-Dubois embarked on a road trip through Quebec as part of a collective he organized called Faut qu’on se parle (We need to talk). The idea was to take the pulse of the province by giving a voice to people from all regions and all walks of life—farmers, seniors, peace activists, those who lived in remote, windswept villages, and those who made their home in cities. Over two months, the collective travelled from one kitchen to the next—174 in all—where it met with small groups. The trip was, he discovered, a way to get people to learn from each other. Even best friends or siblings sometimes did not know what the other thought.

He wants the QS campaign to do something similar for political discussions. He says there is more that unites Quebecers than divides them, even now. “These divisions are artificial—city dwellers versus regions, young versus old, cyclists versus drivers, French versus English. Because we are all concerned about the environment, about proper, planned care for seniors, and a viable future for our children.”

It sounds good, but Béland predicts that Nadeau-Dubois’s assurances and his knack for words will not be enough, not with the party’s stance on sovereignty. “They need to go through growing pains and adjust their policies if they ever hope to attract enough mainstream voters to be in a position to form a government,” he says. “The question is, Do they stay pure, or do they compromise?”

But, right now, Nadeau-Dubois stands firm. “We all want the best for our province. We look forward, not into a dark past.” 

Lisa Fitterman
Lisa Fitterman is based in Montreal. Her work has appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country.