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This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Update: On Thursday, April 18, a Canadian judge declined to delay Zain Haq’s removal, but the following day, Haq reported receiving a call from the Canadian Border Services Agency alerting him that his removal has been deferred, and he will not have to leave the country on April 22 as the judge’s decision would have required. Haq does not yet know the time length of the deferral, and was told by CBSA that he will receive more information in the coming days.

Muhammad Zain Ul Haq, a 23-year-old university student and climate activist in British Columbia, may be deported to Pakistan in less than a week.

Haq, who goes by Zain and helped spearhead campaigns for campus fossil fuel divestment and to save Canadian old-growth forests, has been arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience about 10 times in Canada. In 2022, the Canadian Border Services Agency revoked his temporary student visa and issued an exclusion order alleging that he was not making adequate progress toward his degree at Simon Fraser University. At that time, he had not yet been convicted of any charges. Now, he’s facing a removal date of April 22 — Earth Day.

Haq’s story has drawn attention from climate activists in Canada and internationally who have questioned the speed with which the CBSA mobilized to remove Haq from the country, alleging that the government seems eager to remove someone they have identified as a movement leader and a thorn in their side.

“The idea that somebody can be deported for exercising their constitutional right to freedom of speech is very, very troubling,” said Betsy Apple, a lawyer with Global Climate Legal Defense, an international organization working to defend climate activists from legal repression that has paid some of Haq’s legal fees.

The organization, also known as CliDef, says that if Haq is removed, it will be one of the first examples of deportation for climate activism in North America.

Apple claims Haq’s deportation is a violation of the Canadian Charter of Fundamental Rights. “It is also … at odds with the image that Canada presents of itself in the world as a pro-democracy force,” Apple said.

Following a request from Haq’s lawyer, Randall Cohn, there will be a final judicial hearing on April 16, at which a judge will decide whether or not to delay the exclusion order. If the judge does not grant a stay, Haq’s last remaining option will be intervention from the minister of immigration, Marc Miller, who can step in to delay his removal. Failing that, Haq will board a flight to Karachi on April 21 where he will have to restart his permanent residency application — which has been pending for the past 11 months — a process that is notoriously long and is not guaranteed.

As Zain Haq’s removal date nears, he is fighting to stay in Canada. Experts and climate activists consider how the case might impact the global climate movement, as repression of activism rises.

More than 2,300 people have signed a petition to keep Haq in Canada, and many have called and written to their elected representatives, or made public testimonials in support of Haq and his wife, Canadian citizen Sophia Papp, emphasizing Haq’s value to Canada as a climate activist dedicated to protecting Canadians’ futures.

If Haq is deported, he’ll be separated from his wife and his community.

“I think it’s important that we take a look at our values as a country and say, do we really want to separate families that are committed to protecting the future of Canadians and the livelihood of Canadians?” Haq said, reflecting on his own potential removal. “These types of events are opportunities to reflect on what our values are.”

In an emailed statement, CBSA declined to comment specifically on the case, citing privacy restrictions.

“The decision to remove someone from Canada is not taken lightly,” wrote Maria Ladouceur, a spokesperson at CBSA. “All individuals who are subject to removal have access to due process and procedural fairness… Being engaged in lawful protest activities would not, in and of itself, render an individual inadmissible to Canada.”

Minister Marc Miller’s office also declined to comment on the case, citing privacy, and issued a similar statement.

“Decisions are made by highly trained officers who carefully and systematically assess each application against the criteria set out in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) and its regulations,” wrote Mary Rose Sabater, a communications adviser from Immigrations, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. “Every individual facing removal is entitled to due process, but once all avenues to appeal are exhausted, they are removed from Canada in accordance with Canadian law.”As Haq’s removal date nears and his options dwindle, Cohn said young people, who are increasingly disenchanted with institutional responses to climate disaster, are paying attention to his case.

“Zain is an avatar, to my mind, of a generation of young people who know exactly what the stakes are, and who are trying to decide whether there is a place for them in the institutions,” Cohn said. “If (governments) are serious about bringing that generation of young people into the policy decisions and the huge collective project of changing the way we live in order to be able to mitigate this disaster, why would (governments be) punitive and send this promising person who can be a leader back to a place where he doesn’t think that he can be as effective?”

Witnessing crisis and taking action

Haq and Papp led a Zoom call from their home in Victoria, B.C., for friends and supporters on Saturday, April 13, explaining the possible outcomes for the week and making contingency plans to call members of Parliament in the event that the judicial hearing doesn’t go their way.

During the call, the couple, who met in 2021 and married last April, appeared calm and were, as Haq put it, “cautiously optimistic,” about the coming hearing. But Papp said this process has been overwhelming and anxiety-inducing.

“I’ve definitely noticed my emotions be … quite tumultuous,” Papp said. “I’m stressed even though I’m not always aware of it.”

Growing up in Pakistan — a country that has contributed just 0.31 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1750 — Haq remembers witnessing climate disasters like treacherous flooding and extreme heat waves.

In particular, he remembers deadly flash floods in 2013 that fully damaged more than 30,000 homes and displaced more than 60,000 people, and a heat wave in 2015 that killed 2,000 people in two weeks, including 1,500 people in Karachi, where he grew up.

Haq, who was just 15 at the time, said he and some friends began raising money to bring food rations to Tharparkar, an under-resourced desert district in Sindh province where people were suffering from malnutrition.

“These were people who were completely helpless and had no idea why this was happening to them,” Haq said. “That’s really when I got involved.”

Zain Haq and his wife, Sophia Papp, on their wedding day. Credit: Courtesy photo

After he moved to Canada to study at Simon Fraser University in 2019, Haq continued to mobilize for climate action and helped lead the successful campaign pushing the school to divest from fossil fuels. He also co-founded the Save Old Growth campaign to fight deforestation in British Columbia, where old-growth logging is alleged to threaten crucial ecosystems and increase carbon emissions. Anti-logging protests became Canada’s largest-ever acts of civil disobedience.

Papp met Haq in December 2021 after she saw a post on Facebook advertising a virtual meeting for Save Old Growth. She had previously been involved in disability rights activism, and said she was inspired to join the group by Haq’s ideology, which she said placed saving the old-growth forests of British Columbia within a global landscape of overlapping and cascading social and environmental crises.

“What he said and how he said it really affected me,” Papp said, of watching Haq speak on Zoom. “I was quite drawn to his ideology and the way he presented himself.”

William Winder, a retired University of British Columbia professor and climate activist, met Haq when they were both arrested while protesting a controversial crude oil pipeline expansion project in Burnaby, B.C.

“He always has this very calm, determined, and generous attitude,” Winder said. “He understands what’s going on and he’s willing to put himself on the front line.”

Apple believes that CBSA is targeting Haq for his potential to mobilize others.

“You’re not going to get the Canadian government to say, ‘Yeah, we’re deporting him because he’s a pain in our side,’” Apple said. “[But] he is known as a leader, and when he went out to undertake an action people followed. He has a kind of power and it has resulted in pain for the government and for the companies that are trying to take down the forests or build the pipelines.”

Civil disobedience and the border police

When the Canadian Border Services Agency first began to investigate Haq’s student visa, they claimed it was for academic issues like missed classes and poor grades, Cohn, Haq’s lawyer, said.

Haq had taken some time off from school and had at one point been on academic probation, but said he fully intended to complete his degree. In March of 2023, SFU provided a letter to the court confirming that Haq was enrolled as a full-time undergraduate student in 2022, and that he was eligible to enroll in classes at any time without reapplying.

Cohn said that he has never seen CBSA enforce a failure to make adequate progress toward a degree in circumstances like Haq’s, where he was still actively enrolled and eligible for classes in the next term, particularly with the informal relaxation of rules given the challenges of online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What I saw was Zain had been involved in some civil disobedience action … and there was some attention on what he and others were doing, and CBSA officers decided to investigate and they jumped the gun,” Cohn said. “They decided that he was in violation of his study permit and that they could basically take a shortcut in order to remove him from Canada.”

Since CBSA’s investigation began, Haq has pleaded guilty to five counts of mischief, a Canadian offence that forbids willful obstruction of property, and two counts of contempt of court for nonviolent environmental actions. He has completed three jail sentences of two weeks or less and one month of house arrest.

But when the CBSA revoked his visa, Haq had not yet been convicted of mischief or received due process for his arrests, Cohn said. Now, Haq is married and has applied for permanent resident status through a spousal sponsorship.

Haq’s eligibility for spousal sponsorship should overcome any potential criminal disqualification for the student visa, Cohn argued.

“I am confident that he has a right to be here as Sophie’s spouse,” he said.

Enforcing Haq’s deportation, Cohn said, would create “unnecessary hardship and separation of this couple when the inevitable result of the underlying application is that he’s going to be allowed to come back.”

A new tactic in confronting climate activism?

As climate activists around the world face increasingly severe responses from governments, from surveillance and harassment to long and harsh jail sentences, police brutality and terrorism allegations, some legal experts fear that Haq’s case could signal another danger for the climate movement.

But Cohn, who works on refugee and asylum cases, cautioned the climate movement against looking at Haq’s case in a vacuum, noting that Canada has a pattern of deporting people on student visas.

“The way that Zain has been treated in Canada is actually quite typical because the Canadian immigration laws are bad,” said Cohn. “This is a terrible system, and this is a person who has been treated pretty normally by it.”

According to information obtained from CBSA by immigrant advocacy coalition the Migrant Rights Network, Canada deported 7,032 people in the first half of 2023.

Cohn said that in some cases, young people with no plans to attend school attempt to use the student visa option because it is the only means of entry that they are able to access, and are eventually deported.

Haq’s case is different — he came on a legitimate student visa and was actively progressing toward obtaining his degree when he was targeted by CBSA, who referenced his activism in their investigation. Still, Cohn urged climate activists outraged by Haq’s treatment to extend their passion to other, less visible immigrants similarly impacted by restrictive policies.

“Let’s force all of our governments to have better climate policy. And let’s also force all of our governments to treat foreign nationals humanely and fairly,” he said.

Apple, who in addition to her work with CliDef is an adjunct professor of international human rights law at Columbia University, said that if Canada deports Haq, it would not necessarily have legal implications for activists in the U.S., but it could have social implications within the U.S. and in the global climate movement.

“It increases the anxiety and the sense that threats are rising,” Apple said. “I think this kind of action, if it happens, if he’s deported, does have a knock-on effect in decreasing the sense of safety that activists have.”

Globally, civil disobedience is gaining traction in the climate movement as a tactic for activists trying to combat the reticence of their governments, but it is a tactic that, even when it is celebrated by democratic governments, only receives such attention in hindsight.

“This case is so emblematic of the ways in which a government, which I think characterizes itself as … really interested in trying to address the climate crisis, is behaving in a way that feels very self defeating,” Apple said. “It also demonstrates the ways in which a government sees someone who undertakes nonviolent civil disobedience as a problem rather than an asset.”

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Dear PM Trudeau:
If you want to demonstrate your climate bona fides, here is your chance.
Thank you ahead of time.

Did you hear the good news? Late Friday, Zain and Sophie got the reprieve (for now) that they were seeking! Thank you to everyone who helped in any way, even if it was just a silent prayer or a loving thought.

There are times I almost believe in wild conspiracy theories - until I remember that stupidity is a more likely explanation for chaos, malfeasance, and bad behaviour!

The conspiracy minded would like to admire their cleverness in gumming up the works - but in reality they are just bumbling along, left and right hands working diligently against one another.

This is probably even true of those smug, overpaid, Titans of industry, plotting in over decorated Board Rooms. To err is damnably human!