OTTAWA -- It's the biggest free trade deal Canadians never heard of.
A new poll suggests three in four Canadians have no idea that Canada is one of 12 countries immersed in negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The poll was conducted by Environics Research Group for Trade Justice Network, an umbrella group dedicated to challenging the secretive process by which international trade deals are generally negotiated.
Fully 75 per cent of respondents said they had never heard of the TPP before being asked about it by the pollster.
The telephone poll of 1,002 Canadians was conducted June 3-12 and is considered accurate within plus or minus 3.2 percentage points, 19 times in 20.
The 12 countries involved in negotiations include the United States, Mexico, Australia, Japan, Chile, Vietnam and Singapore; they represent a market of almost 800 million people and a combined gross domestic product of more than $25 trillion.
The federal government maintains the TPP would enhance trade in the Asia-Pacific region, providing greater economic opportunity for Canadians.
Trade Justice Network spokesman Martin O'Hanlon called it "deeply disturbing" that so few Canadians are aware of the partnership talks.
The network maintains the secret negotiations are being conducted with the guidance of multinational corporations and with no input from labour leaders, environmentalists or even MPs.
"It's frightening that this can happen in a democracy," O'Hanlon said.
Maude Barlow, head of the Council of Canadians, a group that opposes the TPP, said more Canadians need to know about the deal because it affects "our ability to set our own laws, and protect health care, family farms and the environment."
She blamed the government for not informing the public. "Unfortunately, negotiations are being held in secret and there is no public debate."
Max Moncaster, a spokesman for Trade Minister Ed Fast, said the government has consulted widely with the provinces and territories throughout the negotiations.
"Our government was the one that introduced an unprecedented process for putting international treaties before the House of Commons," Moncaster said in a statement.
A former senior adviser to Fast said all trade deals are negotiated behind closed doors.
"Of any big negotiation, whether it's a union negotiation or a labour negotiation, I have yet to see one aired on CPAC or C-Span," said Adam Taylor, an Ottawa trade consultant.
"Critics of the secrecy, specifically, because of their own anti-trade views, they pinpoint that as the criticism."
But New Democrat trade critic Don Davies said that line of argument doesn't cut it because U.S. lawmakers are allowed to view the draft text of the TPP as long as they abide by a strict confidentiality agreement.
Davies said he's been repeatedly rebuffed by the government when he's made similar requests in Canada, including a personal appeal to Fast himself.
"Your average American lawmaker can see the text of the TPP and I, as official Opposition trade critic, can't," said Davies.
"The Conservatives have just taken secrecy to an extreme degree."
Taylor said trade deals are rarely top of mind for average Canadians, and generally only grab the attention of business groups or other parties with a direct interest.
His firm, ENsight, conducted its own online poll of 1,200 Canadians in early June, and found that 40 per cent of respondents did not know which of four major trade agreements was most important to Canada.
The North American Free Trade Agreement was ranked highest at 26 per cent, while the TPP was favoured by 12 per cent of respondents.