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Trans-Pacific Partnership ministers at a press conference to discuss progress in the negotiations in Maui, Hawaii.

MARCO GARCIA/REUTERS

Canadians think trade is more important than foreign aid or military might, a new poll suggests, even while they express support for the Forces' mission in Iraq and Syria.

A new Angus Reid Institute survey gives insight into what voters might consider to be the country's top foreign-affairs priorities heading into the Oct. 19 election. Leaders of the largest federal parties – Conservative Stephen Harper, the NDP's Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Justin Trudeau – will be sparring over foreign policy Monday night in an event hosted by the Munk Debates in Toronto.

The survey of 1,487 Canadian adults was conducted through an online panel from Sept. 22 to 24. Online surveys do not have an associated margin of error, though a comparably sized probability sample would have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. (Read the full survey and questions)

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Trade over aid

When respondents were asked to pick their top foreign-policy priority of three options, 57 per cent chose "building better trade ties with international partners." It was the top choice for self-identified supporters of all three major parties.

Thirty-one per cent of respondents said foreign aid was their top priority, which was the second-highest pick for NDP and Liberal supporters. Conservative-inclined voters' second choice was military presence on the world stage, which represented the top priority of only 12 per cent of all respondents.

"At a very general level, we've come a long way from the conversation of should we trade to how do we trade," said Shachi Kurl, senior vice-president of the Angus Reid Institute.

Boosting international trade has been a major goal of the Conservative government, which is seeking re-election even as talks continue on a Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would create a free-trade agreement for 12 countries around the Pacific Rim. It has been politically contentious because of how provisions could affect the competitiveness of the agricultural and automotive industries.

When respondents were asked about the Pacific trade deal, however, 46 per cent said they did not have an opinion. Thirty-three per cent said they supported the deal– which was particularly popular among Conservative supporters – and 21 per cent said they opposed it.

Mission support

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One of the foreign-policy issues with the clearest distinction between the parties' positions has been Canada's military mission against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The Conservatives, who proposed the mission, have sent war planes, military trainers and aid to the region, while the NDP and Liberals voted against combat.

Sixty-one per cent of survey respondents said they supported the mission. An overwhelming number of Conservative supporters – 87 per cent – said Canada should continue its participation, while a slim majority of Liberal supporters agreed.

With feelings about the mission divided almost evenly among Liberal and NDP supporters, "that does put those leaders a little offside within their own bases," Ms. Kurl said. "But is that ultimately going to prove difficult for [the leaders]? Probably not."

Canada's place in the world

On foreign policy, a common refrain from the opposition parties is that Canada's global reputation has been in decline, a point that found agreement from a plurality of those polled. Forty-one per cent said Canada's reputation has gotten worse around the world over the past 10 years, while 30 per cent said it had stayed the same and 21 per cent said it had gotten better. That question split largely on partisan lines, with Conservative supporters generally positive and those who would vote for other parties more negative.

Even so, Mr. Harper generally scored the best of the three main leaders on questions of international leadership. He was the top choice when asked whom respondents wanted representing Canada on the world stage, negotiating trade deals, delivering a speech to the United Nations, or on matters of terrorism and security. Mr. Mulcair was seen as the strongest leader on matters of human rights and climate change.

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