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Kevin Garratt and his wife Julia after returning to Canada.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The arrest and interrogation of Michael Spavor in 2018 was the second time a Canadian was jailed by Beijing after talking to a diplomat with the Global Security Reporting Program, a specialized intelligence-collecting unit within the Department of Global Affairs whose methods are now raising concern about the dangers its representatives have created for others in a hostile environment like China.

In 2014, Chinese authorities detained Canadians Kevin and Julia Garratt, accusing them of participation in espionage – an incident widely seen as hostage diplomacy by Beijing.

Like Mr. Spavor, the Garratts lived in the Chinese city of Dandong, whose location along the border with North Korea has made it a place of considerable strategic importance. The Garratts, Christians from British Columbia, ran a coffee shop on the shores of the Yalu River that divides China from its hermetic neighbour.

Chinese interrogators subjected the couple to intensive questioning about their involvement with foreign agents, demanding precise details about a meeting between Mr. Garratt and Martin Laflamme, a Canadian diplomat the Chinese said was “known to us.” The two men had dined at a North Korean restaurant, where they chatted about local historical sites and discussed how businesses operated in North Korea.

Unbeknownst to Mr. Garratt, Mr. Laflamme was sent to China by the Global Security Reporting Program, or GSRP, a small group of diplomats dispatched around the world to collect information on security in countries important to Canada.

Mr. Laflamme’s successor with GSRP was Michael Kovrig, who also travelled to North Korean border areas, where he met repeatedly with Mr. Spavor. The two Michaels were arrested in 2018 and not released for more than two years. Mr. Spavor is now seeking millions of dollars from the federal government, saying he did not know that information he shared with Mr. Kovrig about North Korea was passed on to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and its Five Eyes intelligence partners, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Global Affairs faces calls for oversight after Michael Spavor’s allegations

The allegations by Mr. Spavor are shining a spotlight on the GSRP, including how it cares for and handles sources and whether it should have the same legislative controls as other national-security agencies.

Diplomats with GSRP do not keep secret their involvement with the program, but they also do not advertise it.

In an interview this week, Mr. Garratt said he did not consider that chatting with a diplomat could raise flags with Chinese authorities. The two men did not discuss anything secret, and their restaurant meeting did not appear to be about gathering information, he said. “It never crossed my mind that we could be at risk,” he said.

But Chinese authorities wanted to know everything about the conversation, he recalled. Mr. Garratt did not know about GSRP. In hindsight, he said, it seems the Chinese did.

“They would know about the program. They would keep an eye on him,” Mr. Garratt said. His interrogators called Mr. Laflamme a spy, an accusation Chinese authorities regularly level against those they seek to incarcerate or whose work they wish to frustrate, including journalists, scientists and corporate consultants.

Mr. Laflamme is now posted to Canada’s office in Taiwan. He referred questions to Global Affairs Canada, which did not respond on Tuesday.

Mr. Garratt also met twice with agents from CSIS, although those meetings took place in Canada, and CSIS communicated with Mr. Garratt on a Canadian cellphone after a trip he made to North Korea in 2009.

The GSRP has a budget of nearly $20-million annually, with about 30 officers posted around the globe. The government said they are not spies and do not recruit, pay or handle human sources. But GSRP reports and analyses are shared within the Five Eyes intelligence community.

Mr. Spavor’s Toronto lawyer, John K. Phillips, is seeking a multimillion-dollar settlement from Ottawa, alleging the conversations with Mr. Kovrig led to the arrest and charges of espionage against the two Michaels, soon after Canada detained Huawei senior executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.

The two men spent almost three years in Chinese prisons before the Biden administration in the U.S. made a deal to allow Ms. Meng to return to China.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly told reporters on her way to a cabinet meeting Tuesday that China arbitrarily arrested the two men in retaliation for the detention of Ms. Meng.

“The notion that the two Michaels would have been involved in espionage activities only perpetuates the false narrative under which they were detained by China,” she said. “These two men went through an unbelievably difficult situation, and I think that we can all be inspired by their resilience and strength.”

She did not say whether the government intends to conclude a financial settlement with Mr. Spavor.

Guy Saint-Jacques, who served as Canada’s ambassador to China between 2012 and 2016, took issue with Mr. Spavor’s allegations.

“There was no coercion. He met willingly and met others as well,” he said of Mr. Spavor. “He was happy to boast about his special relationship with Kim Jong-un,” he said of the Canadian. “Unfortunately for him he was dealing with a subject that the Chinese consider very sensitive for all kinds of reasons. That’s their backyard.”

Mr. Saint-Jacques said GSRP officers posted to Beijing during his tenure focused on subjects such as relations between China and its neighbours. He said GSRP officers also visited Xinjiang, where China’s repression of Muslim minorities including Uyghurs was on the rise.

He said human rights, the ability of Uyghurs to worship their Muslim faith and their rapport with the Han Chinese in Xinjiang would have been the main interests for GSRP during his tenure in Beijing.

Mr. Saint-Jacques said what Mr. Spavor and the Garratts have in common is their proximity to North Korea. Mr. Spavor’s “unprecedented access” to North Korea’s Leader, Kim Jong-un, likely made the Chinese envious, he said.

The Garratts’ coffee shop, meanwhile, provided a venue both to observe goings-on in the border city and speak with visiting foreign diplomats. “The coffee was good. The hamburgers were good. Foreign diplomats in China were eager to find out more and have a good hamburger and good coffee,” Mr. Saint-Jacques said.

He said it is incumbent on people talking to foreign diplomats in China, including GSRP officers, to be aware of China’s ever-pervasive surveillance and “behave accordingly” in their dealings.

“Foreigners should know that, especially if they are dealing on issues that are sensitive, that China considers sensitive, they have to understand that they are watched,” Mr. Saint-Jacques said.

Mr. Garratt was held for more than two years before being sentenced to eight years in jail for the theft and illegal provision of state secrets to overseas organizations. He was released after being sentenced; Ms. Garratt was released earlier. They are currently working with refugees in Southeast Asia.

Diplomats and analysts say the detention of the Garratts was almost certainly Chinese reprisal for Canada’s arrest of Su Bin, a Chinese businessman who lived in Vancouver and was wanted in the U.S. for masterminding the theft of military secrets. Mr. Su was extradited from Canada to the U.S., where he was sentenced to 46 months in jail.

But Mr. Garratt now wonders if his meeting with Mr. Laflamme was part of the reason Chinese authorities were watching him.

“It never occurred until later that maybe it was because we met people like that,” he said.

“Because they did show us pictures of people – they did talk about Martin and people like that,” Mr. Garratt said. “In the future, I wouldn’t meet those people.”

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