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Dairy cows are shown in a barn on a farm in Eastern Ontario on Wednesday, April 19, 2017.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A new survey shows most Canadians would accept a weakening of protections for domestic dairy, egg and poultry producers as part of a renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement.

U.S. President Donald Trump has called Canada's restrictions on dairy imports a "disgrace," raising expectations that Canada's policy of supply management will be under pressure when formal negotiations begin later this month to update North America's trading regime.

Current television ads from the Dairy Farmers of Canada showing young campers enjoying ice-cream cones on the bus and ballplayers celebrating with postgame pints of milk are aimed at instilling warm feelings in the hearts of Canadians when it comes to supply management.

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Opinion: Supply management is about more than 'the powerful dairy lobby'

But a survey by the Angus Reid Institute shows those farmers have a lot more persuading to do with the general public.

Canada's supply-management policy – which includes extremely high import duties to restrict imports and tight quotas on the amounts a farmer can produce – are frequently cited as an irritant by other countries when it comes to trade. Canada accepted some concessions in its trade deal with the European Union that will allow for more agricultural imports, but the supply-management system was maintained.

The survey asked participants for their views on how Canada should handle the supply-management issue during the approaching NAFTA negotiations.

"If concessions are demanded at the negotiating table, most Canadians seem quite comfortable with the idea of at least talking about scrapping the system," the institute states in a report. According to the survey, just 29 per cent say they would want the government to stand firm in negotiations and protect supply management. One-quarter (26 per cent) say that supply management should be on the chopping block without any resistance and 45 per cent said they would like to see it used as a bargaining chip in negotiations and ended only as a last resort.

The results are at odds with two other recent surveys – a Campaign Research poll in May and an April survey by Abacus Data – that both found majority support for Canada's supply-management system.

When the United States released its starting position on NAFTA on July 17, the Canadian Dairy Farmers described the U.S. objectives as "fairly broad" and called for dairy to be excluded from the talks.

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"Dairy wasn't part of the first NAFTA agreement, and there is no valid new evidence to support that dairy be discussed in this round of negotiations," the organization said in a statement at the time.

The online Angus Reid survey was conducted from June 8-13, among a representative randomized sample of 1,512 Canadians, and from July 26-27 among another sample of 1,508 Canadians. A sample of this size would carry a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The survey was commissioned and paid for by the Angus Reid Institute, a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public research foundation.

The institute found that Canadians have "a low level of knowledge" about the supply-management system, with only 4 per cent saying they know a lot about it and 58 per cent saying they know nothing about it.

Canadians who followed the recent Conservative Party of Canada leadership race may be more familiar with the debate. Conservative MP Maxime Bernier finished a close second in the party's May vote after campaigning to eliminate supply management, promising that it would lead to lower prices for consumers. Conservative MP Andrew Scheer, who ultimately won the race, promised to protect supply management and promoted that position while campaigning in Quebec, which has a high percentage of Canadian dairy farmers.

The Angus Reid survey found Conservative voters are significantly more likely to oppose supply management. However it also found Canadians in Quebec and Atlantic Canada are the most likely to support the policy.

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