The Current

'We only came to help': Canadian couple imprisoned in China, accused of spying

Kevin and Julia Garratt called China home for 30 years. But two years ago, the Canadian couple were arrested, thrown in jail, and accused of spying. Now back in Canada, Kevin and Julia Garratt are ready to share their story.
"You ate in that cell, you showered in that cell." Canadian Kevin Garratt was detained in China and accused of spying. 0:59

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In August of 2014, two Canadians, who had lived in China for over 30 years, were suddenly arrested — they were accused of being spies.

It was the start of a two-year ordeal for Kevin and Julia Garratt.

In 1984, the couple was invited by China's communist government to teach English.   

Kevin and Julia spent the next 30 years teaching and opening schools and orphanages. And in 2007, they moved to Dandong, a city near the North Korean border where they ran a popular coffee shop. 

Even after being imprisoned in China, Kevin and Julia Garratt says they still love the country that was their adopted home for over 30 years. (Courtesy of Kevin and Julie Garratt)

"We would get people from embassies who were in North Korea. [They] would stop by because we were so close," Kevin Garrett tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti, whose visitors included Canadian foreign minister John Baird.

That all changed on Aug. 14, 2014.

Julia and Garrett were invited through a friend to meet a couple who wanted to talk about their daughter coming to the University of Toronto to study. What they didn't know at the time was that the dinner was a set up.

"We got to the restaurant, the couple met us and the daughter wasn't there. And I thought that was a little odd," Kevin explains.

"After we finished the dinner, the normal thing for the Chinese is to send you to the door, they might even pay for your taxi if you're going home, but they saw us to the elevator."

When the elevator reached the lobby, both Julia and Kevin were grabbed and forced into separate cars.

I didn't know if it was thugs. I didn't know if it was the police. I didn't know who it was. I was really terrified.- Julia Garrett
Kevin Garratt embraces his wife Julia at the Vancouver airport, Sept. 15, after being released from prison in China. (James Zimmerman/CP/HO)

"We were taken to the ministry of state security building and later I heard Julia down the hallway. They wanted me to sign this paper that said I agreed to be investigated," Kevin remembers.

"I'm wondering what are you talking about? Investigate for what? What's going on here? Explain yourself. And finally they said, 'Well you're accused of being a spy and we want to investigate.'"

Julia and Kevin were each held in solitary confinement for the next six months. Julia was eventually released under house arrest; Kevin was sent to prison.

I was put into a cell where I stayed the next 19 months.- Kevin Garratt

"There were up to 14 other roommates in that cell. The room was 12 paces by five," explains Kevin.

"I never left the cell except for the monthly 30-minute embassy visits," says Kevin. "There was a lot of fear."

Eventually, the Garratts were released and able to come home this fall.

How Canadian Julia Garratt - detained in China - made her own Christmas celebration 1:03

They tell Tremonti that they would still like to go back to China, a country where they built their livelihood.

"When I think of China I still think of all the people who received us in that first year," Julia says.

"I have a deep respect for many of the people we met along this journey."

Listen to the full story at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Lara O'Brien.