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On eve of Three Amigos summit, only one-in-four Canadians support NAFTA

[President Barack Obama, center, walks with Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto, left, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila, Philippines, on Nov. 19, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP,Susan Walsh]

Canada is not immune to the undercurrent of skepticism threatening to tear apart fundamental Western trade relationships, a new poll suggests.

The leaders of Canada, the United States and Mexico gather in Ottawa this week amid calls for a new sales pitch for the two-decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement. Fears of a spreading anti-trade backlash in the West have been rising with the popularity of presumptive US Republican nominee Donald Trump, and now Britain’s shocking vote to split from the European Union.

Only a quarter of Canadians polled say NAFTA has benefitted Canada– roughly the same portion, at 26 per cent, as those who say the deal has hurt the country, according to a new public opinion poll from the Angus Reid Institute.

The other half of Canadians polled took no position, with another 22 per cent saying NAFTA hasn’t had an impact, and the final 27 per cent saying they were unsure what the effect has been.

“This is not seen as a particularly good deal for Canada, where only one in four can really muster the opinion that it has, at the end of the day, provided a net benefit to this country,” said Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, in an interview with Yahoo Canada News.

“You wonder, in the wake of Brexit, if we aren’t moving to a more retrenched place in the world.”

Whether the relatively dim view of NAFTA is unique to that deal or an example of international trade in general becoming less palatable to Canadians, as it has to many Britons and Americans, isn’t known yet, said Kurl.

There may also be a failure of communication on the side of policymakers to communicate the benefits of NAFTA, if indeed there has been, she added.

The poll was conducted June 13 to 15, before the June 23 vote in the UK. The self-commissioned online survey used a representative randomized sample of 1,519 Canadian adults, members of the Angus Reid Forum. The probability sample of this size, the survey indicates for comparison purposes, would have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

The Canadian government says it has unequivocally benefited from NAFTA. Its foreign affairs website shows total Canada-US merchandise trade more than doubled between 1993 and 2014, while trade with Mexico jumped over sevenfold. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told CNBC in March that “trade is ultimately good, not just for our countries, but for our businesses and our workers” and said reopening NAFTA, a Trump promise, was not a “real issue.”

But Canadians have a mixed view, with 34 per cent saying the deal should be renegotiated, according to the poll. The most likely to favour renegotiation are Canadians 55 and older, the poll states, with 46 per cent of men and 44 per cent of women in that age range choosing this option. Young Canadians, meanwhile, are largely unsure.

Kurl said there was a high level of ambivalence or lack of awareness of NAFTA and its complexities. “Canadians are not particularly engaged,” she said. “Is this a condemnation of the trade deal, or is this kind of a shrugging of shoulders?”

The poll also asked Canadians what their priorities were for the summit. The issue of NAFTA itself and other trade issues topped the list at 20 per cent, with security issues winning another 20 per cent. Climate change was next at 17 per cent, while immigration and border controls were down the list at only nine per cent.

However, when the poll whether Canadians supported removing their country’s visa on Mexicans, respondents were divided. Just over a third of Canadians, 36 per cent, support lifting the visa, while 37 opposed the idea and another 27 per cent were unsure.

“Those numbers around the visa are somewhat correlated and tied to and driven by whether or not people have positive or negative views of the country,” said Kurl.

Positive views of Mexico are higher in Ontario and British Columbia, but there is still a negative view of the country persisting in some Canadians’ minds, driven in part by drug-war-fuelled violence in the news, she said.

Trudeau has promised to lift the visa, and is proceeding to fulfill his election promise despite calls for caution from his own bureaucracy over a spike in refugee claims, CBC has reported.

Canadians do favour greater Canada-Mexico co-operation on mutual economic interests in the US, the poll found, with 49 per cent agreeing with that strategy compared to 22 expressing skepticism and 29 per cent saying they were unsure.