Zain Haq, a climate activist with the group Save Old Growth in British Columbia, is beginning a 14-day prison sentence today.
His crime? Sitting down and blocking the construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion in the city of Burnaby. It was an act of civil disobedience designed to slow a project that First Nations groups and advocates have long warned will worsen the climate crisis. The pipeline threatens endangered species and fragile ecosystems and will allow its parent company to triple its daily shipment of more than 300,000 barrels of crude oil.
For Haq and his peers, engaging in direct action like this is a way to get the government to follow through on promises it made to protect the region’s old-growth forests.
Yet logging in the old-growth forest continues, the Trans Mountain Pipeline is being built, and an injunction has been made by the government outlawing direct action against it. Haq’s arrest stems from defying this injunction.
While prison might deter some people, the Save Old Growth activists view the risk of an ever-worsening climate crisis as far more daunting than time spent in a cell.
“Getting arrested by a Canadian police officer and going to a Canadian prison is peanuts compared to what’s coming down the line,” Haq, a 21-year-old history student at Simon Fraser University, told Global Citizen.
In advance of beginning his prison sentence, Haq spoke with Global Citizen over the phone about what Save Old Growth hopes to achieve, the importance of direct action, and the importance of funding from groups like the Climate Emergency Fund, which supports the work of grassroots organizations like Save Old Growth.
Global Citizen: Can you tell me what led to the arrest?
Zain Haq: At the time I got arrested, there were two other friends of mine who were at the treehouse for Save Old Growth to block the Trans Mountain Pipeline. The deal was, on that day, they were going to be extracted.
I decided to get in the way of construction, so the extraction could be delayed, so that's what I did. I sat down and delayed construction for five hours. They were able to stay there for another week, and it probably cost the company a lot of money. I knew I was facing a prison sentence in the future.
Why were you willing to risk arrest? What’s at stake for you?
Before this, I had been arrested seven times as well. At this point, to me, it’s not a cost benefit analysis. It’s about really emotionally engaging with how bad the situation is. It’s all about comparing the current moment to what’s coming down the line — the climate crisis, people fighting with each other over bread. So getting arrested by a Canadian police officer and going to a Canadian prison is peanuts compared to what’s coming down the line.
Why did Save Old Growth move to blocking roadways?
The thing is, we’ve seen 1,100 arrests since trying to block the pipeline for over a year. And that hasn’t gotten us anywhere. I was arrested there. The general consensus there is it hasn’t been successful, and people are burnt out. So we’ve decided we need to take it to the streets.
The 1st iteration of the #SaveOldGrowth campaign ended on Monday with the Trans-Canada Highway disrupted at multiple points across BC & a total of 54 arrests.— Save Old Growth (@saveoldgrowth) February 2, 2022
We will now be mobilizing masses of people to return to the roads, beginning on March 21.
End all old growth logging. pic.twitter.com/cZRxqoNO38
Like Insulate Britain, we were blocking the Canada highway, causing economic and public disruption because nothing else worked. It’s causing a lot of media attention in the province. We’re going to hit five to 10 different roadblock points going forward, at least three times a week, with a goal of 200 arrests over four weeks.
The broader mobilization strategy is, we picked four neighborhoods in Vancouver and we’re passing out 5,000 leaflets in each, and at the end of the week we’re doing a talk and people can sign up to get arrested and go to prison or get involved with support.
What’s the big picture goal of Save Old Growth?
The expectation is that we won’t win with 200 arrests, though you never know, but the goal is to build enough momentum so we can create this really big third iteration so we can have 2,000 arrests. We had 54 arrests last month, and we paused, and now we’re mobilizing and recruiting and we’ll have 200 arrests in the second iteration. We’ll pause again for a month.
Two thousand people going to prison — that's the plan. It’s very strategic. It’s thought out step by step.
The goal, ultimately, is legislative change. Over time, our protest will cost too much in terms of reputation and policing, so it’ll be more costly for the government not to agree to our demands.
More than 80% of the province supports the old-growth forests. The more we do the actions, the more the public finds out that they [the government] were lying about deferring logging.
With so much public support, what stands in the way of the movement securing a political victory? How can the public be activated?
Even with so many arrests, the reason why the government wasn’t feeling enough pressure is because it wasn’t affecting the public. Once it starts affecting them, they get involved emotionally and psychologically because they ultimately support Save Old Growth and then they’ll call their MPs and ask what’s going on.
What’s your pitch to people who are on the fence about the urgency of climate action?
I think the reason that people are on the fence is that there’s a lot of repression. People don’t think they can make a difference on their own. There’s no easy solution to that except a handful of people leading the way prophetically, saying they’re willing to get arrested and go to prison. That’s what we’re trying to do with Save Old Growth.
That’s what Insulate Britain did. They had 100 people who got arrested eight times each — that’s 800 arrests. Soon, everyone realized that there is a way out, that there is this thing that I can get involved with. They go to prison, they’re fine. It’s not the end of the world. It wasn’t that bad.
How are you feeling, knowing that you’re heading to prison tomorrow?
I saw three other people who were sentenced today for the same thing and they are now in prison. I’ll be going to prison with one other person. I really hope to use my time productively while inside. I think I’ll be able to express myself in writing while in prison and that’s my main purpose — to properly articulate what's happening. Because I think that’s the main block right now. There’s this dogma in the activist community that you shouldn’t get arrested, that only if you do enough marches, write enough petitions, that you’ll win. But that’s not the case. It’s just a structural reality.
If you’re dealing with health care, maybe you can get health care by doing a really big march every Saturday, but when you’re dealing with an existential emergency where carbon emissions have been going up for 30 years, it’s insane to think that we can still continue that process and I think everyone kind of knows that even if they’re still engaged in it. They’re not taking the extra step [of risking arrest] because someone else hasn’t yet.
You said you were inspired by Insulate Britain — what other groups around the world have you drawn inspiration from or have worked with?
So there’s going to be 10 groups that are going on the road at the same time in late March. There’s Last Generation in Germany and Italy, there’s Fireproof Australia — these are all new groups starting out in late March. It’s going to be massive. They’re all going to be disrupting motorways.
The Climate Emergency Fund gave Save Old Growth a $50K grant to support its work. How important is funding from groups like this?
I think that funding is super important because people can't really do this if they’re working two other jobs and if they’re also in school. With Save Old Growth, some coordinators have had to drop out of school and quit their jobs because working full time on this is absolutely necessary.