Armed with pots and pans, supporters turned up at Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto on Saturday to express their solidarity with former Quebec student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.
The former Quebec student leader was found guilty of contempt of court on Thursday, after a Quebec judge ruled that he encouraged student protesters to ignore court injunctions banning demonstrations from interfering with classes and urged them to continue with picket lines that prevented students from returning to class.
“It’s alarming and an attack on free speech,” said Lana Goldberg at Saturday’s rally.
“And it should be extremely concerning for anyone who is part of a social movement anywhere in Canada that relies on being on the streets to get a message across and put pressure on politicians to make changes.”
Quebec students voted to strike and began mass demonstrations in February after then-Premier Jean Charest introduced plans to increase tuition by $325 per year for the next five years.
Picket lines were set up at most universities.
But in May, a court injunction allowed University of Laval student Jean-Francois Morasse to return to classes.
Shortly thereafter, Morasse filed a complaint against Nadeau-Dubois following an interview where Nadeau-Dubois told a Radio Canada journalist that “if students need to form picket lines to ensure that their strike votes are respected, we think that’s completely legitimate.”
At a news conference on Friday, Nadeau-Dubois said that he was only exercising his right to freedom of speech as a spokesperson for CLASSE, one of the Quebec student associations.
Nadeau-Dubois could be sentenced up to a year in jail and slapped with a maximum $50,000 fine.
But the former spokesperson said on Friday he plans to appeal his conviction before he’s sentenced. In the meantime, he’s seeking financial support to help defray the legal costs he’ll incur during his bid to have the judge’s decision overturned.
“I can’t believe this is happening in Canada,” said Magdalena Diaz, who is originally from Chile.
“I believe Canada to be a country where there is freedom of speech and freedom of action. And that you can voice your discontent with situations that take place. So this is very scary for me.”
Xavier Lafrance, a student at York University, said Nadeau-Dubois’s conviction is “bad” for the former spokesperson as well as the entire student movement in Quebec and future social movements in Canada.
“It’s a real attack on freedom of speech,” said Lafrance.
“But at the same it’s ridiculous in the sense that it never was an individual commitment to not go to class. It was always a collective decision.”
And that’s the way the people of Quebec have been organizing for over half a century.
Lafrance, who lives in Toronto but travelled back and forth between here and Montreal during the strike, said this was the ninth general student strike in the province since 1968.
“But it was the first time injunctions were given by judges,” he said.
“On some campuses, even people who were against the strike showed up on the picket lines to support the right to collectively decide whether or not to strike.”
Kamilla Pietrzyk, a PhD candidate at York University, attended Saturday’s rally not only to support Nadeau-Dubois but also to voice her opposition to austerity measures of the Harper government and beyond.
“He was speaking as a representative of CLASSE and the broader student movements in Quebec,” she said.
“But also outside of Quebec where students are facing crushing student debt.”
In August, Nadeau-Dubois announced his resignation from CLASSE.
“The main reason he resigned from CLASSE is because all the pressure was concentrated on his personality,” said Thomas Chiasson-Lebel.
“The Liberal government was putting all the focus on him. By leaving, the Liberals couldn’t use his personality as an argument in the (election) campaign.”
But the Quebec student movement remained intact. And it was a decisive factor in the defeat of the Charest Liberals and the subsequent cancellation of the proposed tuition fee hikes.
On a windy, cold November day, supporters gathered behind a homemade “Solidarity with Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois” banner featuring a red clenched fist, a symbol of solidarity and support. They blew whistles and banged their pots and pans.
Some wore the red square, the familiar symbol of the Quebec student movement.
In addition to Nadeau-Dubois, dozens of students still face serious criminal charges related to the demonstrations during the tuition fees strike.
Close to 3,000 other students were ticketed and fined for minor infractions.