OTTAWA -- Canada's economy showed signs it may be ready to bust out of its half-year funk by churning out a surprisingly strong 50,700 new jobs in February, most of them full-time, in the private sector and in Ontario.
The outsized gain was enough to keep the unemployment rate at the four-year low of 7.0 per cent with over 60,000 Canadians joining the labour force in the month, another good signal for the economy.
Regionally, Ontario was the biggest generator of new jobs, adding 35,300, followed by British Columbia with an increase of 19,800. Quebec had the biggest drop in employment, shedding 13,100 jobs.
In Manitoba there were fewer people employed in February than in January, but there were even more people who left the workforce, so the unemployment rate in Manitoba fell to 4.9 per cent, the lowest rate in more than two years.
The provincial economy cut 3,200 jobs in February, according to Statistics Canada, but there were 4,500 fewer people looking for work.
Over the last 12 months, 7,600 jobs were created in Manitoba, an employment growth rate of 1.9 per cent -- identical to the national average.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty cited the "good economic news" Friday after his meeting with private-sector economists, who also gave him some bad news -- the economy won't grow as fast as was expected this year.
Still, the minister noted the latest bump in job creation meant Canada had churned out almost one million new jobs since the end of the recession in July 2009.
"And just this morning, General Motors of Canada Ltd. announced an investment of $250 million to upgrade their plant in Ingersoll, Ont. That is a welcome investment," he said.
Economists had expected a second weak month in February, given that most indicators have been pointing to modest growth and January saw an outright loss of nearly 22,000 jobs. The forecast had been for about 8,000 new jobs.
But instead, the labour market reversed all the negative signals sent out in January, and then some. Not only did job gains swamp the previous month's losses, but Canadians who had exited the labour force returned with a vengeance.
"Up until today, economic indicators had suggested that the Canadian economy was sputtering as opposed to accelerating," said Sonya Gulati, a senior economist with TD Bank.
"Today's employment numbers put some of these concerns to bed. While headwinds are plentiful and downside risks numerous, these should abate, enabling economic growth in Canada to pick up in the second half of this year," she said.
Canada's economic prospects were also buoyed by what happened south of the border, where U.S. employers also ramped up hiring with 236,000 new jobs, pushing the unemployment rate down to 7.7 per cent -- the lowest in four years.
With many of Canada's domestic growth engines -- housing, government spending and consumer purchases -- operating in low gear, analysts say the country's economic prospects over the next few years rest almost solely on a strong pickup in U.S. and global demand to bolster the export sector.
The Canadian dollar surged shortly after the two announcements, rising 0.53 of a cent to 97.67 cents US. However the loonie had retreated somewhat from that mark by mid-afternoon, trading at 97.25 cents US.
The details of the Statistics Canada employment report were almost as strong as the headline number. Most of the new workers were employees, rather than in the weaker self-employment category, in the private sector and full-time jobs beat out part-time positions two to one.
The only weak link came in manufacturing, which continued its losing streak of the past few months. The factory sector dropped 25,600 workers in February, putting it in negative territory overall for the past 12 moths.
Bank of Montreal economist Robert Kavcic noted the labour market has been blissfully unaware of how weak the economy is supposed to be for six or seven months. The country has been adding about 30,000 jobs a month, while the second half of 2012 saw output fall to a snail's pace of 0.7 per cent annualized.
-- The Canadian Press