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The life of Guelph’s Jim Garrow: He’s garnered wide interest, praise and criticism for his Pink Pagoda child rescue operation
August 28, 2010
Jim Garrow is all smiles.
The Guelph resident is fresh off the phone with his U.S.-based literary agent, Nancy Ellis, who told him everything is on track for a deal on a book that will document his life story.
It’s going to be an autobiography, Garrow says, but he’ll likely use a ghost writer rather than pen it himself. “A lot of people do that now,” he says.
But that’s nothing compared with a possible movie deal, Garrow adds. Word is, a famous actor read a sample of his life story and is eager to play the lead in a new film. Garrow is mum on the actor’s name, but assures, “you’d know him.”
A Renaissance man
Garrow, who is in his 50s, has a resumé that reads like that of a true Renaissance man. His background in education is wide-ranging, with stints as a principal, school board trustee and special needs teacher. He created his own internet business and ran a flight school.
He holds an honorary doctorate in theology from a school in North Carolina and a teaching degree from the University of Toronto.
He runs a language business, called the Bethune Institute, named after Dr. Norman Bethune, the Canadian physician who is viewed as a hero in China for his medical service there in the late 1930s. The institute runs for-profit courses in Canadian and U.S. cities and is affiliated with 168 Chinese schools, Garrow says.
For the past 10 years, Garrow has run an organization he calls Pink Pagoda. He says he works with 142 people in China to rescue baby girls whose parents might otherwise abandon or kill them. When his team hears about unwanted babies, they collect them from their parents and deliver them to local orphanages or the arms of friends and relatives, Garrow says.
When needed, he adds, the organization can provide money and supplies for a child’s upkeep.
He says Pink Pagoda is responsible for saving 34,000 baby girls since 2000.
Reclining on the front porch of his two-storey Guelph home, Garrow speaks with pride about his role in the organization. His grey hair is streaked with golden-brown hues and falls to his shoulders. A trimmed white beard frames his face.
He says Pink Pagoda has consumed him.
“Am I a zealot? Am I almost religious in my fervour for what I do? Yeah, beyond belief,” he says, leaning forward.
His passion has inspired a groundswell of support from some quarters. There are more than 500 members on Pink Pagoda’s Facebook page and Garrow says he’s well-known and appreciated by elite figures in China.
A recent Facebook post by one group member states, “Thank you, Jim, for your efforts and passion to a cause so vital to humanity. The impact that your organization has had on life is incredibly significant.”
But some of those familiar with China’s adoption networks question Garrow’s public statements.
Brian Stuy, a former financial services sector customer services worker, from Salt Lake City, adopted three children from China in the late 1990s and early 2000s. After several trips to Chinese orphanages, he says he began to question how well the system serves local children and parents. Today, he follows orphanages and Chinese adoptions closely and maintains a website listing his findings.
Stuy now makes his living providing adoptive parents with newspaper clippings and other clues about their child’s early life in China.
In 2008, he heard about Pink Pagoda and phoned Garrow to find out more.
“I talked with Jim Garrow a lot about the program,” Stuy says. “He indicated areas in China where he works, and I’ve made contact with orphanages in those areas and have been unable to substantiate anything he’s said.”
Garrow says he’s not surprised his work isn’t known in China because his organization tries to keep a low profile there.
He says he can’t reveal which orphanages or even geographical areas his organization works in for good reason.
“We are doing stuff that is illegal in China,” Garrow says.
According to Chinese adoption law, families can adopt domestically if a child’s parents are deceased, missing or unable to raise the child due to “unusual difficulties.” The law forbids the buying or selling of a child, including “under the cloak of adoption.”
Garrow suggests his work is also illegal under the International Convention on Child Trafficking, to which Canada is a signatory.
“If I save a baby, and give it to you, when I hand it to you, I’ve now just breached the Geneva Convention,” he says. “I’m now involved in a criminal activity called trafficking in human flesh. That’s exactly what happens if I pass a baby from me to you, even though I’m saving the life of a baby.
“Some parts of law have not caught up with some parts of morality and necessity.”
In 1979, the Chinese government implemented a policy requiring couples to have only one child to limit the country’s population growth. Chinese officials claim the policy has prevented hundreds of millions of births and helped to keep the population manageable.
But the one-child policy has had another, unintended impact. A traditional preference for boys resulted in some parents choosing to abort or abandon baby girls so they could go on to have a boy instead. A 2009 study by the British Medical Journal found China had 32 million more boys than girls under the age of 20.
The policy was well-established in 1995, when Garrow began partnering with schools in China to teach English as a second language through The Bethune Institute. He says he was inspired to start Pink Pagoda during that time.
Garrow explains that he came across one of his Chinese employees sobbing in a corner one day. He says the woman was upset because her sister’s husband wanted to kill the baby the two recently had so they could try to have a boy instead.
“My heart was broken,” Garrow says. “I said we will do whatever it takes to save the baby.
“In the end, we ended up halfway across China, flying with the employee to meet her sister and this guy (the husband), give them money, took the baby, then we didn’t know what to do with the baby,” he says.
“It was a learning experience that took a lot of money and a few weeks before we had the baby placed ... in an orphanage.”
Comments like these have led some people to worry Garrow is involved in buying and selling babies.
“Any time anybody offers money to families to give up their child to an orphanage, that’s a problem,” Stuy says.
Children’s Bridge International, an Ottawa-based adoption agency, says Canadian parents who adopt from China must donate $35,000 yuan, about $5,400 Canadian, to their child’s orphanage. That money is to improve conditions for the kids who remain under the institution’s care.
There are reports some family planning officers in China have stolen children or coerced families into giving up their children in order to sell them for a cut of the international adoption fee.
“Any hinting of child trafficking is something I want to end. And (Garrow’s) program is clearly child trafficking, although he sees it as saving,” Stuy says.
Garrow says he was visited in China in 2008 by a Canadian police or intelligence officer, who investigated his work and did not lay charges.
Garrow denies any involvement in selling infants. “In case you’ve heard I smuggle babies, I do not,” he says pointedly.
Garrow’s literary agent, Nancy Ellis, says she views his work as a modern-day rebellion in the style of the Underground Railroad.
“Yes, he has had to circumvent Chinese law,” she says. “But it’s a horrific law. This is a man who has in the past and will continue to save lives.”
A Nobel nominee?
Garrow, who goes by the honorific “Dr.,” says he obtained a doctoral degree from the North Carolina College of Theology. The college is not an accredited school in North Carolina, and its staff did not return phone calls. Garrow says he did the required course work, but the degree was honorary, granted for his work in China.
In November 2009, Garrow told the Mercury he was among the nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with Pink Pagoda. U.S. President Barack Obama won the award.
All nominations for the international prize are kept secret for 50 years after they are submitted, but Garrow says he learned he was on the list from the man who nominated him, the president of a Chinese university whose granddaughter was rescued by Pink Pagoda agents.
Garrow says he can’t reveal the man’s name, the university he heads, or the province he’s from because that could put the man in danger.
But he posted news of the nomination widely on several Facebook pages, the Pink Pagoda website and his LinkedIn online resumé. On April 8, a user called drjgarrow edited the Wikipedia page on Dr. Norman Bethune to include a reference to Garrow’s reported Nobel nomination.
An earlier 2008 edit to the page by the same user indicated that Pink Pagoda was an arm of the Bethune Institute for language studies and its work was being done in Dr. Norman Bethune’s memory.
This year, “2010 Nominee — The Order of Canada” was added to Garrow’s online resumé.
Mayor Charlie Bagnato of Brockton, Ont., the municipality that includes Walkerton, says he nominated Garrow for the Order of Canada this year. That honour is for outstanding Canadians who have enriched the lives of others, and is awarded through the office of the Governor General of Canada.
Bagnato, who attended Toronto’s Weston Collegiate Institute with Garrow in the 1970s, says he nominated Garrow because of his “prowess in doing good things in the world,” particularly through Pink Pagoda and in his career as an educator.
Staff at the Governor General’s office could not confirm whether Garrow’s nomination was received. Anyone in Canada can nominate an individual or a group for the honour, and the award committee receives hundreds every year.
Not a registered charity
Pink Pagoda is not a registered charity. Garrow calls it a philanthropic organization, and says he doesn’t take money from people for the work.
“We’ve had to send cheques back to people,” he says.
Garrow says the Pink Pagoda website had a PayPal button on it because the organization planned to sell materials. He says he had to shut it down because people “snuck donations in.”
But 2009 and 2010 statements on the Pink Pagoda website and its Facebook wall suggest people were encouraged to donate.
“Each of these initiatives require funds to back the efforts,” the website states. “Should you choose the opportunity to donate to Pink Pagoda, please use our PayPal donation button.”
A Jan. 19, post on the Pink Pagoda group’s Facebook wall tells members a “dispute with PayPal is cutting our ability to receive funds from supporters.”
A followup post by Garrow continues:
“They don’t seem to understand the concept of “philanthropy”. We have told them time and again that we are a business not a charity that does philanthropic things. Duh!”
He says the organization is funded through profits from the Bethune language schools and other, private business interests he has in China. Garrow says $26 million was spent on Pink Pagoda in the past 10 years.
“How do I account for 26 million in expenditures over 10 years? How do I explain that? By virtue of the fact that every penny I’ve made (in China) goes into this.”
Asked for more details on his Chinese businesses, Garrow replies, “You don’t need to know that. It doesn’t make the story better.”
He alludes to one business that imports products such as Tim Hortons coffee and bottled water to Chinese stores.
Tim Hortons spokesperson Alexandra Cygal says Garrow has no affiliation with the company.
“He’s definitely not authorized and not licensed to sell our products,” Cygal says.
Garrow calls Pink Pagoda the charitable arm of the Bethune Institute, which runs Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, or TESOL, classes in Canadian and U.S. cities. The five-day courses are meant to prepare students to teach English overseas and cost $985, according to the institute’s website.
Scott Shearer, who worked as a recruiter for Bethune classes for several months at the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010, says he regularly promoted Garrow’s philanthropic work through Bethune.
“When I was talking to people about signing up for the course that was something I’d say, (that) a proportion of the funds did go to Pink Pagoda,” Shearer says.
“It was something nice when people sign up for the course, they know a little bit of the money anyway is helping to save baby girls.”
Garrow says the institute also has 168 partnerships with schools in China. He indicated one former school was located in Chongqing, a major city in southwestern China, but said he couldn’t discuss the locations or names of any of his current schools.
Early internet venture failed
In 1995, the same year Garrow began work on the Bethune Institute, he also started up an internet service company called the International Internet Alliance.
Garrow says his dream for the project was to create a “seamless backbone” of internet service across Canada. He estimates he sold more than 70 franchises of the business to people across Canada for the rights to provide internet service to individuals.
The Alliance allowed internet users to select a service called CleanNet, which Garrow, a Baptist, told franchisees would block pornography and other undesirable websites.
He says most of his clients signed promissory notes. “Not one person paid for the franchise,” he says, “They paid a down payment. That’s all we ever took.”
He says a dispute emerged between the company and some of its franchisees. There are different versions of what the dispute was over, and Garrow says the result was that fees weren’t paid to Rogers and Bell and the Alliance was shut down.
Murray Scott is a director with Transport for Christ International, a prayer and ministry service for truck drivers.
Scott estimates he lost about $10,000 in the internet venture. He says he doesn’t remember a lot about the purchase now, but “I lost money, I can’t forget that.”
He had purchased the rights to provide internet to customers in the Burlington area, but after a few months of no service, Scott cut his losses. He says he didn’t pursue the matter legally because “I figured it would cost more in the long run than it would be worth.”
For his part, Garrow says he had no choice but to shut down service.
“A lot of people were hurt, sadly,” he says. “But we didn’t walk away with any money. Seriously, not a cent.”
ChristianWeek, a bi-weekly newspaper published out of Winnipeg, printed an article about Garrow and the soured internet business in its Oct. 6, 1998 publication.
“Word came to us from individuals who were seeing their savings disappear. So we got a reporter to look into it and he (the reporter) did a credible job. He pulled together a good article,” says Doug Koop, ChristianWeek’s editorial director.
Soon after the article was published, Garrow sued the newspaper. Koop says the $1.1 million lawsuit nearly destroyed ChristianWeek.
“We’re a shoestring operation at the best,” Koop says. “So when you’re talking tens of thousands of dollars simply to hold your own (legally), it’s not good.”
Eventually, a Baptist minister who knew both Garrow and Koop persuaded Garrow to drop the suit.
“The minister told me it was wrong,” Garrow recalls.
He insists International Internet Alliance was a legitimate operation.
“Why was I not charged if I’d done something illegal?” he says. “I wasn’t walking away with buckets of money.”
Teaching certificate suspended
A few years later, Garrow was teaching communications and special education classes at a high school in Athens, Ont., a small town 30 minutes northwest of Brockville, when allegations of professional misconduct surfaced.
A summary of the Ontario College of Teachers public hearings, held in 2001 and 2002, indicates Garrow “abandoned his employment” before the school year had finished. Students at the hearing also testified that he made derogatory remarks about them. In 2002, the college suspended Garrow’s teaching certificate for nine months and issued him a $3,000 fine.
Robert Greene, who is now retired, was Garrow’s boss in the technical department at Athens District High School. He says he didn’t witness Garrow verbally abuse students, but indicated he was aware of “classroom control” problems.
“I don’t know the reason he left,” Greene says. “It caught everyone by surprise.”
Garrow says he was hassled by his principal and other teachers because of his public support for the province’s then-Conservative government and was ignored when he complained about an award a student won that he believed wasn’t deserved.
“Justice really wasn’t served,” Garrow says of the hearing.
Another venture started shortly after the teaching reprimand. It saw Garrow take over a flying school at the Region of Waterloo International Airport.
According to records from Transport Canada, Garrow hired two instructors who took students out for about 60 flights in the spring of 2001 before they discovered the plane they were using was not insured or registered.
Transport Canada initially fined Garrow $2,230, and then increased the fine to $2,850 when a civil aviation tribunal found he had intentionally deceived his instructors.
Garrow appealed the decision, but his appeal was dismissed when he didn’t appear at the hearing.
Reflecting on the experience years later, Garrow says, “We got nailed right away.”
“That’s fine, we just shut it (the school) down.”
After that, Garrow spent less than a year as the principal of the teacher education program at the Nunavut Arctic College. That school did not return calls for comment.
In 2005, he took another short-term teaching job. That was at Big Trout Lake, an Oji-Cree reserve in northern Ontario, more than 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.
A Toronto Star article published that year called Garrow a “reading guru” for his literacy work there.
“It’s nice to be featured,” Garrow says when asked about the article. He says he stayed there for less than year and left when his contract ended.
But members of the community remembered his presence there differently and noted he left suddenly.
Bryan Liboiron, a London, Ont. teacher who worked in Big Trout Lake at the same time, says he recalls Garrow joking with other staff that he would sue them.
“He used to joke all the time about lawyers. As a joke though, I always thought it was a joke,” Liboiron says. “That’s just his personality.”
“He was there for the same reason as us — he wanted to help.”
‘I am really angry with this guy’
Throughout his short periods of work in Canada, Garrow says he continued to work on Pink Pagoda.
As the organization’s reputation in China grew, he says it became easier to convince people in China to trust representatives of Pink Pagoda with their infants. Now, he says, he’s almost legendary in much of the country.
“You don’t see me walking on a street in China, you don’t see the reaction they have to me there,” he says. “It’s almost mystical.”
“People know something like what I do is going on, and they appreciate it.”
On March 11, 2009, the Pink Pagoda website welcomed a lawyer named Kenneth Xue as the organization’s legal adviser.
“We look forward to the sage advice that he will be giving us in our work across this great nation,” the website states. “Welcome Kenneth!”
Reached by email at his office in Shenzhen, China, Xue said he never agreed to be a part of Pink Pagoda.
“I have never been involved with Pink Pagoda and have no ... idea about this organization. I am really angry with this guy,” Xue wrote.
Xue, who is a senior partner in the Grandall Legal Group, says he met Garrow almost 10 years ago through his wife, who is a teacher. Garrow introduced himself as a Canadian principal. Xue says Garrow never mentioned Pink Pagoda to him, and the two never spoke again after the initial meeting.
In recent years, international adoption out of China has become increasingly rare.
Between 2007 and 2009, the number of children adopted into Ontario from China fell from 208 to 69, according to the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services.
Some suggest that’s because China is loosening its one-child policy, making it easier for more Chinese parents to keep their children or adopt domestically.
Susan Coates, a Toronto-area mother who adopted two girls from China in 2003 and 2008, says she’s watched the wait times for international adoptions from China increase dramatically in recent years.
“My understanding is that China is pretty much closed now (for international adoption),” Coates says.
She says there is no shortage of hopeful parents — both abroad and inside China — who are eager to adopt legally.
“There’s a good reason (for the laws),” she says. “They’re there for the safety of the kids.”
Garrow says the best indication that Pink Pagoda’s work is still necessary is the fact that he gets help from officials and friends in China.
“I have to say we’ve been well protected in China,” he says. “Why am I not dead or in jail? Either you believe in supernatural interventions of God, or you think there is a group of people out there who say ‘this is necessary thing, we’re glad he’s able to do it.’ ”
On March 19, the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services received a complaint alleging Garrow was arranging international adoptions from China without a valid licence.
This was never substantiated by the ministry. Spokesperson Peter Spadoni says the ministry informed the RCMP and the federal Department of Intercountry Adoption Services, which later told the Chinese authorities. He says some ministry staff members were subsequently interviewed by RCMP officers regarding Garrow’s activities.
“The RCMP is conducting an investigation which is ongoing,” Spadoni wrote in an email.
An RCMP spokesperson declined to comment.
Garrow did not respond to requests for clarifications and comment on the March allegations.
About one week after he consented to a lengthy, wide-ranging interview about Pink Pagoda at his home, Garrow posted a note to his personal Facebook wall.
“An attack piece is being prepared by a reporter of our local newspaper against me and my work,” he wrote.
He said a quote by Texas Libertarian Party politician Jon Roland is appropriate given that circumstance.
“Real courage is found, not in the willingness to risk death, but in the willingness to stand, alone if necessary, against the ignorant and disapproving herd.”