QUEBEC - Could the most prominent figure in Quebec's protest movement face jail time for having encouraged students to keep schools shut?
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois pleaded not guilty to a contempt-of-court charge Tuesday in a Quebec City courtroom and dismissed the idea that he should be imprisoned for his student activism.
His opponents in the case said that's exactly what he deserves.
The charge stems from a court motion filed by Jean-Francois Morasse, who alleges Nadeau-Dubois encouraged students to ignore a court injunction that paved the way for Morasse to return to class at Universite Laval in Quebec City.
The contempt-of-court case focuses on remarks Nadeau-Dubois made on television on May 13. At the time, Nadeau-Dubois said it was legitimate for protesters to form picket lines to keep students who had obtained injunctions from getting to their classrooms.
Nadeau-Dubois is a co-spokesman for the CLASSE student group — the most radical of the province's three biggest student associations. He has been featured in international news reports and been described, arguably inaccurately, as a protest leader.
"Let's hope this isn't a political settling of accounts. That would be very unfortunate," Nadeau-Dubois told reporters at the courthouse.
"The vehemence with which the other party is talking about a prison sentence — well, let's just say it leads one to believe there's an element of frustration there."
The Quebec protests have lasted 15 weeks, during which nearly one-third of post-secondary students have remained away from the classrooms during a battle against tuition hikes.
Most students remained in school, while some were ordered to return by court injunctions. Some of the more ardent protesters blocked attempts to reopen classrooms.
The student dispute has caused considerable unrest, including confrontations between police and protesters in the streets, along with more festive demonstrations in recent days.
The provincial government and student groups have resumed face-to-face negotiations for the first time in nearly a month.
The student who lodged the complaint rejects the notion of a vendetta.
"No, this isn't a personal attack," Morasse said.
"I believe he undermined my injunction. It was an injunction that I obtained... Three judges agreed (to grant it to me) and I think it's only normal to have it respected."
Asked what penalty Nadeau-Dubois deserves, he said: "What he did is sufficiently serious to merit a prison sentence. But it'll be up to the court to decide."
Morasse's lawyer said he would seek jail time if possible. The maximum penalty Nadeau-Dubois could potentially face is a year in prison.
"If he's found guilty, yes, I will demand a prison sentence," said lawyer Maxime Roy Martel.
"Because of the gravity and the scope of his statements — and the consequence they had... As a student leader you can't incite people who commit the acts."
He compared the behaviour of Nadeau-Dubois to the more measured response of another student leader. He said Leo Bureau-Blouin, head of a comparably moderate student federation, acted more responsibly by saying he disagreed with the injunctions but wouldn't encourage people to defy them.
"As a citizen you have to start worrying when people say, 'There's a court decision I don't like and I'm not respecting it,'" Roy Martel said.
"That's where anarchy starts."