Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

The Canadian government has pledged to bring back the dozens of containers of garbage, but did not meet a May 15 deadline set by President Rodrigo Duterte to remove them from Philippines soil.Aaron Favila/The Associated Press

The Philippines is pointing the finger at weak leadership in Canada as the reason for a festering fight over unreclaimed containers of trash, in the latest dispute with an Asian nation to ensnarl the Justin Trudeau government.

Mr. Trudeau could stand to be more like Rodrigo Duterte, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo suggested Friday. The Philippines leader has crafted a potent, and deadly, image as a decisive strongman.

“You know what the Canadian government needs in order to do that, to take the garbage out? They need a Duterte there,” Mr. Panelo said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. That means someone with “the political will,” he said.

How would he describe Canada’s current leader?

“The opposite, maybe,” he said, though he did not specifically name Mr. Trudeau.

The snide remark came a day after Manila called back its ambassador to Ottawa over dozens of containers of garbage – filled with newspapers, diapers, plastic bottles and more – brought to the Philippines in 2013 and 2014 by a Canadian firm.

The stunning rupture in relations over a modest quantity of refuse is the latest theatrical step against a Western country taken by the Philippines, which under Mr. Duterte has sought greater alignment with China, another current antagonist of Ottawa.

The government of Canada has pledged to bring back the containers, but did not meet a May 15 deadline set by Mr. Duterte to remove them from Philippines soil.

Yesterday in Paris, Mr. Trudeau did not apologize for missing the deadline, but said he hoped to resolve the issue shortly.

The trash spat has drawn Canada into the dramatic and sometimes crude political atmosphere that has seized the Philippines since the election of a president who has burnished his domestic popularity even as he has drawn criticism from human rights groups for overseeing a bloody anti-drug war that has been likened to “mass murder.”

Mr. Duterte’s political circle is populated by people with a propensity to dispense with normal pleasantries. Among them is Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Teddy Locsin Jr., who on Friday made a crude sexual reference on Twitter while acknowledging that the Philippines had, initially, not responded to Canadian requests for information about which company was responsible for the garbage.

Mr. Panelo, the presidential spokesman, accused Canada of taking the Philippines for a fool. Failing to take back the garbage is “an offensive act. It insults the government and this country,” he said. Unless proven differently, Canadian pledges to remove the garbage amount to mistruths, he said.

“If they’re not lying, they’re not telling the truth,” he said. Mr. Duterte, he added, is serious about his threat to ensure the trash containers end up on Canadian beaches if Ottawa doesn’t act, he said. “We will just dump them on the shores of Canada,” he said.

Officials in the Philippines say the garbage was brought in under false pretenses as recyclable material by a company, Chronic Inc., that appears to longer exist (its owner in 2014 disputed the allegations, saying the containers were 95 per cent filled with recyclables).

On Thursday, Mr. Locsin publicly upbraided Canadian officials for missing a meeting with the Philippines Bureau of Customs, saying that precipitated the diplomatic rupture. The country’s official presence in Canada will be kept “de minimis,” Mr. Locsin said, until the garbage leaves Philippines soil.

Philippines recalls ambassador, consulate heads from Canada over garbage dispute

From the comments: ‘We are drowning in plastic!’ Readers react to story on Canada’s recycling troubles, offer solutions

Reduce, reuse, recycle, rejected: Why Canada’s recycling industry is in crisis mode

The extraordinary response from the Philippines has raised suspicion among local observers about the motivations of Mr. Duterte. He escalated the dispute with Canada not long after returning from Beijing, which has itself mounted a high-intensity pressure campaign against Canada following the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

Mr. Duterte came to China in late April for the Belt and Road Forum, a major Chinese foreign trade and investment initiative, and met with President Xi Jinping. In the midst of a series of tweets about Canadian garbage yesterday, Mr. Locsin, the foreign secretary, flattered Mr. Xi as having a “profoundly intellectual” background.

The garbage dispute has the look of “a tag-team from the Philippines and China against Canada,” said Richard Heydarian, a political scientist in the Philippines and author of The Rise of Duterte.

“Perhaps China wanted some kind of action on the part of the Philippines to try to show some kind of support for China’s position,” said Jay Batongbacal, a scholar at the University of the Philippines College of Law who specializes in maritime issues.

Several officials close to Mr. Duterte denied any connection to China. “Absolutely nothing to do with that,” said Mr. Panelo. As well, Rafael Alunan, a former interior secretary who recently mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the country’s Senate on a pro-Duterte slate, said, “From our standpoint, we can’t understand why Canada, which is 33 times larger in terms of land area, can’t dump its own garbage in its own country – and instead is using the Philippines as a dumping ground. That’s all there is to it.”

“I don’t think this is related with China,” said Jesus Dureza, who was until last year a close adviser to Mr. Duterte. “This President is known for taking bold steps, irrespective of how others react, to address ills long pestering our country.”

And, Mr. Dureza said, the Philippines President is loath to appear weak. Mr. Duterte has reason to dislike Mr. Trudeau, who has publicly criticized the Philippine leader’s human rights record. Ottawa also cancelled the sale of helicopters to the Philippines on human rights grounds.

There is ”personal resentment here,” said Mr. Heydarian. “President Duterte is really looking for any opportunity he can to get back at Trudeau and some of our Western partners who dare to criticize.”

It’s in that sense that Mr. Duterte’s beef with Canada has perhaps the most resonance with Beijing, as both countries seek advantage amid much broader geopolitical shifts.

The Philippines leader sees himself as “a harbinger of a post-American, post-Western era,” Mr. Heydarian said. “So there’s also that element where President Duterte is aligning himself with other developing countries who are pushing back against the more pro-active liberal advocacy of countries like Canada.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe