A significant majority of Canadians believe human rights should trump job creation when it comes to the federal government's controversial $15-billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia.
Nearly six out of 10 Canadians surveyed by Nanos Research for The Globe and Mail say they feel it is more important to ensure arms exports go only to countries "that respect human rights" than it is to support 3,000 jobs by selling weaponized armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia.
The results put more pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reconsider a contract that is still in its early stages, particularly as opposition to selling weapons to Saudi Arabia grows among allies from Berlin to London.
On Thursday, an all-party committee of U.K. MPs called for a suspension of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia pending a probe into Riyadh's devastating military campaign in Yemen. A UN report last week said a Saudi-led Arab coalition has conducted "widespread and systematic" bombing of Yemeni civilians – killing more than 2,600.
The Canadian government is the prime contractor in the Saudi deal to sell combat vehicles equipped with machine guns and anti-tank cannons to Riyadh's National Guard, the force that protects the Mideast kingdom's monarchy from coups or other internal threats.
Saudi Arabia has an abysmal record on human rights – the watchdog organization Freedom House regularly ranks it among the "worst of the worst."
Many of the jobs connected with the arms deal in Canada are in southwestern Ontario, in particular at a London, Ont., plant operated by General Dynamics Land Systems.
The Nanos poll finds Canadian women are significantly more likely than Canadian men to value human rights above the jobs affected by the Saudi deal, with 67.4 per cent of females favouring this position compared to 48.8 per cent of males.
The poll showed 40.5 per cent of men and 19.9 per cent of the women ranked the jobs first.
It also revealed Canadians' low regard for the Saudi government. The survey reported that 87 per cent of respondents say they have a negative, or "somewhat negative opinion" of the authoritarian regime.
Overall, 58 per cent of Canadians ranked selling arms only to countries that respect human rights above the jobs, while 30 per cent put the jobs first – and 12 per cent were undecided.
The fact that Canadians picked human rights over the armoured vehicle contract jobs by two to one gives the Trudeau government significant margin to cancel or suspend the deal, pollster Nik Nanos said.
"The polling shows that in this particular case, there's significant amount of political latitude for the Liberals to cancel, stop, delay or modify the transaction," Mr. Nanos said.
"The survey shows that this isn't the type of deal that Canadians would expect from the government of Canada. ... Canadians value human rights over jobs and this [deal] doesn't align with what people expect."
Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Waterloo, Ont.-based Project Ploughshares, which monitors arms exports, said the Liberals should take a hard look at the polling results.
"We knew of Saudi Arabia's atrocious human rights record, and we knew of applicable Canadian military export controls. Now we know that a majority of Canadians affirm the primacy of human rights protection – even knowing full well what the economic trade-off would be," he said.
"If the prospect of public opposition to a reconsideration of the Saudi deal gave Ottawa any pause, it is now clear where a majority of Canadians stand. This is now a test not only of Canadian export controls, but of the new government's democratic responsiveness to persisting calls for transparency around this deal."
Doubts are growing among Canada's allies about selling arms to the Saudis, in light of mass executions conducted by Riyadh in January that included a dissident cleric, and the increasing carnage in Yemen.
The NDP is urging the formation of a Commons committee to scrutinize arms exports. NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière tabled a motion at the Commons foreign affairs committee on Thursday.
In London, the UK's Commons international development committee this week asked the Cameron government to suspend arms sales to Riyadh and mount an inquiry into Yemen, where the Saudis are fighting Houthi forces aligned with Iran.
Germany's Minister of Economic Affairs and Energy Sigmar Gabriel recently signalled Berlin's increasing unease over arms deals with Riyadh, saying in January the government needs to review future shipments. In the past 24 months, Berlin has denied key applications for arms exports to Saudi Arabia, including several hundred battle tanks and G36 rifles.
In Belgium, the head of the Flemish government, Minister President Geert Bourgeois, announced in January that he has refused an application for an export licence to ship weapons to Saudi Arabia and hinted he would continue to do so in the future.
The Nanos Research poll surveyed 1,000 Canadians between Jan. 30 and Feb. 1. A random survey of 1,000 Canadians is considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points 19 times out of 20.