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Will you be having tap water with that?

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OTTAWA -- It's a small sign, but it may not be a good one. At the official meetings of the European Union this month, the host nation, Denmark, will be serving not bottled, but tap water.

The bottled water will be replaced by "good pure Danish tap water," Denmark's European affairs minister Nicolai Wammen told journalists in Copenhagen.

Delegates to the 27-nation bloc may need something stronger. There are growing indications Greece's deteriorating economy is threatening the viability of a $165-billion bailout agreed to by European leaders in October. International inspectors are to visit Greece this week for talks.

Greece's problems are taking a toll on the Canadian economy. Statistics Canada said early this month that the nation's unemployment rate rose to 7.5 per cent from 7.4 per cent in November. The economy created jobs for the first time in two months, but the unemployment rate rose because more people entered the labour market in search of work.

"The global economic recovery remains extremely fragile," Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters. "Canada is not immune to the problems afflicting economies outside of our country. And we must not and we will not become complacent."

A good piece of news: The jobless rate in the United States, our largest trading partner, fell in December to a near three-year low of 8.5 per cent.

The Harper government is supposed to launch a budget with deep spending cuts in February/March. The unemployment figures raise the question: Is this a good time to be handing out pink slips?

The unemployment figures also highlight that Greece's debt is not the only problem affecting our jobless. Domestic challenges in areas such as youth, education, and immigration are also of concern.

A new study by the Royal Bank shows our economy is suffering because many immigrants can't use their qualifications. If immigrant skills were rewarded in a similar way to that of Canadian-born workers, the increase in their incomes would amount to $30.7 billion -- equal to about 2.1 per cent of the nation's gross domestic product.

That translates to about 42,000 additional jobs. Gordon Nixon, the Royal's chief executive says, "if we are going to continue to grow as a country, we've got to be very receptive to foreign capital, to foreign thinking and to foreign skills to maximize our potential."

Some of the research in this area does not reflect well on native-born Canadians. A University of Toronto study last fall showed resumés with English-sounding names received 35 per cent more callbacks from employers than those with foreign-sounding names.

Youth, particularly young men, are also having troubles in the job market. The jobless rate for them runs about 14 per cent, compared to 22 per cent in the U.S.

Women have an easier time than men getting jobs because many of them work in services such as health care and catering. The situation is so tough for some men that experts have started calling it a "mancession."

Japan, which has a serious mancession, shows what the impact on an economy can be: Service jobs pay lower average wages than the ones men used to have such as construction and manufacturing and consumer spending falls -- all of which makes it difficult for an economy to pull itself out of a recession.

In addition, boys are not doing as well in school as young women. The recent Pan-Canadian Assessment Program shows they have fallen behind in science; have lost their dominance in math and are still way behind in reading.

Manitoba students did badly in the PCAP, scoring abysmally in national testing in math, science and reading conducted by the ten provincial and Yukon territorial ministers of education.

Our students beat out only Prince Edward Island in math and topped only the Yukon in science and reading. Manitoba Education Minister Nancy Allan says she's "very concerned."

Help may be on the way for another major problem area: reserve schools that receive less federal government funding than they require. Prime Minister Harper is supposed to meet aboriginal officials this month to discuss a new education program.

No news on whether they're drinking tap water.

Tom Ford is editor of The Issues Network.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 16, 2012 A10

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