Ottawa is spending more than $1 million to ship 2,000 tonnes of rotting garbage back to Canada from the Philippines, hoping to bring an end to the diplomatic war over waste before Canada Day.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said Wednesday the government signed a contract for $1.14 million with the Canadian arm of French shipping giant Bollare Logistics, to prepare and ship 69 containers of Canadian trash that have sitting in the ports of Subic and Manila in the Philippines for up to six years.
"Canada values its deep and long-standing relationship with the Philippines and has been working closely with Filipino authorities to find a solution that is mutually acceptable," she said in a statement.
McKenna said the waste must be treated to meet Canadian safety and health requirements, but an official with Environment Canada wouldn't explain what those requirements entail or whether the waste is currently a hazard to the Philippines. A recent inspection of the containers by the Philippines found all but one of the containers was seaworthy. One container was infested by termites but could be safely moved as long as it was secured on a platform.
The 69 containers are the remainder from 103 shipped by a private Canadian company to the Philippines in 2013 and 2014 and labelled improperly as plastics for recycling.
The other 34 containers have already been dealt with in the Philippines, despite objections from local officials and environment groups. Those groups say the shipment was illegal under the Basel Convention, an international treaty Canada signed to prevent richer nations from dumping their garbage in unsuspecting developing countries.
McKenna anticipates the containers will all be back in Canada by the end of June and they will be disposed of properly within Canada before the end of the summer. Canada is trying to go after the company that shipped the waste but it has since gone out of business.
The Philippines, which has been demanding Canada remove the waste for nearly six years, recently set a May 15 deadline for having it removed, with President Rodrigo Duterte threatening to declare war otherwise (an official later said he just meant to convey how strongly he felt). When that deadline came and went with the garbage still sitting in the Philippines, Duterte recalled his country's ambassador and consuls general from Canada. On Wednesday he ordered his government to find a shipper to take care of the containers, with plans to leave them in Canadian waters.
Hours later, Canada announced a contract had been signed, although the document posted online suggests the deal was actually done May 17.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke to her counterpart in the Philippines, foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin, following Duterte's decision to recall the Philippine ambassador. She said Wednesday Canada is very focused on bringing this matter to a conclusion.
"I think we have taken a big step with the announcement today and we are moving as quickly as we can, bearing in mind, you know, the need to take due care to get this resolved once and for all," Freeland said at an event in Regina.
Duterte's spokesman, Salvador Panelo, told a news conference in Manila Wednesday that Duterte was upset "about the inordinate delay of Canada in shipping back its containers of garbage," adding "We are extremely disappointed with Canada's neither-here-nor-there pronouncement on the matter."
More than five years of talks between Canada and the Philippines to deal with the trash went nowhere until last month, when Duterte threatened war and said he would ship the garbage back to Canada himself.
"Eat it if you want to," he declared.
Panelo said Wednesday the Philippines "must not be treated as trash by other foreign nations."
"Obviously, Canada is not taking this issue nor our country seriously. The Filipino people are gravely insulted about Canada treating this country as a dumpsite," Panelo said.
NDP MP Gord Johns said he is relieved Canada is finally doing what it should have done years ago. He said "it's disgraceful" that Canada allowed the dispute to escalate to this point before acting.
He noted South Korea took just a few months to take garbage back when it accidentally sent containers of trash to the Philippines, and Canada should have done the same.
—with files from The Associated Press
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press