As It Happens·Q&A

Michael Spavor, Michael Kovrig will need time to recover, says man previously detained in China

Kevin Garratt says he's "thrilled" for both Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on their release from custody in China and their return to Canada. Garratt knows what the pair went through — he was also detained by China for two years on spying charges.

Years later, there are still things that 'trigger memories' of Chinese prison says Kevin Garratt

Kevin Garratt was running a coffee shop with his wife when he was arrested in China in 2014 on espionage charges. He was later released and deported in 2016. He says that Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig will take time to readjust to life in Canada after being detained in China. (Submitted by Kevin Garratt)

Story Transcript

Kevin Garratt says he's "thrilled" for both Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on their release from custody in China and their return to Canada.

The two men were detained on espionage charges in China almost three years ago, in what was seen as retaliation by China for Canada's arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the request of U.S. authorities. The pair landed in Calgary on Saturday morning and were met by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau.

In August, a Chinese court found Spavor guilty of spying and sentenced him to 11 years in prison and deportation. Kovrig's trial concluded in March, but he had not yet been sentenced. 

Kevin Garratt and his wife Julia were arrested by Chinese authorities in 2014 on charges of espionage. Julia was released in 2015 and Kevin was released and deported in 2016.

In case that has strong parallels to that of Spavor and Kovrig, the Garratts were arrested just a month after Chinese citizen Su Bin was arrested in British Columbia. The FBI alleged Su was the mastermind of a plan to steal information about U.S. military jets. Su pleaded guilty to charges in 2016. 

In 2018, after Michael Kovrig was arrested, Garratt told As It Happens that he thought their arrest was in retaliation for Meng Wanzhou's detention.

Now, he says, the two Michaels will face an adjustment period in Canada. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor arrive in Canada with Canada's ambassador to China Dominic Barton, Sept. 25, 2021. The Michaels were in detention in China for over 1,000 days. Many considered it a retaliatory detention against Canada for responding to a U.S. request for extradition of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. (Government of Canada)

Kevin, I'm sure you had some memories of when you were finally released and able to come back to Canada, when you got the news that Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were finally in the air. What came to mind?

It was September 15, 2016, when, you know, I got the news I was being released. Almost didn't believe it really, that it was happening. It was kind of a shock, but it was a good kind of shock as opposed to all the other bad shocks I'd been having, those two years.

But I was thrilled for ... both the Michaels that they were being released. And I know their families are ecstatic right now.... But now, you know, settling back into life is going to take some time.

And for you, it was very sudden, wasn't it? You had been in detention for, well, in one form or another for 700 days or so. You were there with these trumped-up charges. You were then convicted and sentenced to an eight-year prison term and then bang, two days later, you were out and on your way to Canada, right?

Exactly, yeah. They took me to court, sentenced me to eight years. And then it wasn't clear from the court proceedings that I was going to be deported right away. But there was an extra judicial meeting that happened in the evening after the court proceedings.

And I was told by the embassy officials the next day, "You could be deported as early as tomorrow," which would have been September 15th. And that's exactly what happened. But they were kind of saying, "Don't really know if it's going to happen until we see you on the plane."

And, of course, the uncanny parallels between what happened to you and what happened to both the Michaels, is that they were detained because of the arrest and extradition process of Meng Wanzhou, you were apparently in retaliation for Canada's decision to arrest a Chinese businessman, Su Bin. Did you know anything about what was going on, all the machinations going on in Canada and within the Chinese government?

No, I had no idea that we were taken because of Su Bin. I didn't know until I was released. You know, sometime a few months before I was released, I saw his name in a China daily paper that I was able to get, but I had no idea he was connected to what was going on with us. So, you know, for two years they said, "You're spies." And I'm thinking, how do they get it so wrong? You know, we're just doing humanitarian work, we're working with churches and things. And, you know, they just, they got it really wrong. And I had no idea what was really going on.

When you say we, you're referring to you and your wife and you both invested a lot of your life energy in China, didn't you?

We spent 30 years there working in seven different cities doing various kind[s] of aid projects. But we also taught English. We studied Chinese. We ran a coffee shop on the border, was the last thing we did, the border of China and North Korea. ...I think part of the reason we were taken is because we lived in a sensitive area.

Julie and Kevin Garratt had lived in China for 30 years and were running a coffee shop in Dandong when they were arrested in 2014. Kevin says that talking about what happened to him, and sharing their story, has been healing for him. (Submitted by Kevin Garratt)

You were in the same prison as Michael Spavor, right?

That's correct, yeah. Probably just down the hall from him [if] I'm not mistaken. I understood he was in cell 315, I was in 318. So I know very well what would go on in that area.

What I went through, my wife went through and the two Michaels went through, that's torturous.- Kevin Garratt

You and your wife not only dedicated all that energy, you love the country. And from what we've heard of both of these men, Michael Kovrig, Michael Spavor, they were very fond of China.... So how difficult is it to come to terms with the fact that a country you loved had treated you that way?

I separate the system, which is not a good system, and the people. You know, we work with tremendous people, had lots of friends in China. And I'm sure both Michaels did as well. But the system has some flaws and they don't value people really. They want to get their own way, so ... hostage diplomacy is a thing they use right now.

[I] wonder what it was like to hear some of the remarks from Meng Wanzhou ... after the extradition was dropped.... She said: "Without a powerful motherland, I would not have my freedom today." She talked of the torturous 1,000 days that she spent, and now that she's free. And we know that she spent all of that time in a very nice house in British Columbia. So ... did that rankle a bit when you hear her remarks?

I don't call having an ankle bracelet, being able to, you know, travel around Vancouver between, I guess ... 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. too bad. Be able to rent restaurants and, you know, for your family and friends to go to, I don't find that too torturous at all.

But from what I went through, my wife went through and the two Michaels went through, that's torturous. I mean there's no freedom in that. You're very controlled. It's a very regimented, military-type environment. No choices, you know, not even what you want to eat or read or anything like that.

Michael Spavor leaves the Calgary airport after returning home to Canada after more than 1,000 days in a Chinese prison. (Colin Hall/CBC)

After all that time and the effect it has on you to be incarcerated like that and not to even know what's going on, what advice would you give to Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig as they try and readjust to being home?

It's going to take some time to readjust. I mean, it probably took me a year and a half to really fully readjust. And there's still, you know, things. You know, when I see, you know, Chinese [people walking behind] us or something it's like, oh, what's going on here again? You know. So there are things that will always be there.

There were sounds that ... from the first six months we were in a black jail and that was, you know, interrogated and separated, isolated, you know, just things that go on there. You hear car doors you think, oh, is someone coming to get me again? Or something like that. But ... I wouldn't say it's a fear we have, it's just they trigger memories. And then you go on.

And what helps you get past that?

Just doing regular things, you know. Spending time with family and friends, doing the work that we enjoy doing. We're still helping people overseas. We haven't stopped that kind of work. And we spoke a lot and continue to speak about our story and about really how God took us through it.

And that's very healing as well. Our book, of course, Two Tears in the Window, details all that. But, you know, speaking about it, sharing our experience, sharing the depths of what went on is really healing.


Written by Andrea Bellemare with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson and Katie Geleff. This Q&A has been edited and condensed. 

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