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B.C. lost 11,000 jobs last month -- 4,000 more than the rest of the country combined -- as the provincial unemployment rate jumped 1.2 percentage points to 9.7 per cent.
"We knew there were some tough problems in store for the province, but this is a pretty ugly drop [in employment]," CIBC deputy chief economist Alister Smith said Friday.
Contributing to the big jump in the province's jobless rate was an increase of 15,000 in the number of British Columbians looking for work.
Statistics Canada reported the national jobless rate rose by half a percentage point to eight per cent as the Canadian economy lost 18,000 jobs in December.
Statistics Canada said B.C. lost 59,000 jobs last year, with the biggest losses taking place in the manufacturing sector. A total of 28,600 B.C. manufacturing jobs were lost in 2001, with about a quarter of those losses occurring in wood-products manufacturing.
Other sectors taking major job loss hits last year include finance (down 19,900), natural resources (down 12,500) and professional, scientific and technical services (down 11,600).
Areas that experienced year-over-year gains in employment include trade (up 12,200), health care and social assistance (up 11,300) and accommodation and food services (up 7,700).
StatsCan said unemployment in Greater Vancouver rose from a three-month average of 7.1 per cent in November to 7.8 per cent last month. The Victoria rate rose from 5.7 per cent to 5.9 per cent.
Smith said the weak B.C. employment picture will likely drag on this year because there is no satisfactory resolution in sight for the softwood lumber dispute with the U.S.
"It's hard to point to a month sometime this year when suddenly the Americans will relent [on the lumber duties] and their housing market strengthens to the point where you have a real big increase in the demand for B.C. lumber," he said.
Smith said the B.C. economy still has some strengths, including the energy sector, but noted that tourism -- a traditional strong performer and a significant part of the provincial economy -- will likely slow down this year.
He predicts the B.C. economy will grow by about one per cent this year, compared with a national average of 1.7 per cent.
"One-per-cent growth isn't a recession, but it's about as close as it gets and it could slip below that number, depending on what happens with the softwood lumber issue in particular," Smith said.
Credit Union Central of B.C. chief economist Helmut Pastrick said the big increase in B.C. unemployment last month is deceiving because of the large increase in the number of people looking for work.
"If the size of the labour force had stayed the same, the unemployment rate would have gone to just nine per cent," he said.
"I expect these job losses will generally end in the next six months and then we'll see some stabilization before job gains kick in during the second half of the year."
CIBC World Markets economist Avery Shenfeld said the recession is finally catching up to the Canadian job market.
Given all the announced layoffs yet to come, including more than 1,500 in Canada by Ford Motor Co., and the plunge in help wanted ads, the jobless rate will likely rise further, despite recent optimism that the recovery is near, he said.
Adding to the grim mood and undermining North American stock markets Friday was a warning by U.S. Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan that the U.S. recovery -- a prerequisite for a turnaround here -- is still at risk.
"The eight-per-cent unemployment rate [in Canada] will no doubt put more pressure on Ottawa, and particularly the Bank of Canada, to do more to get the economy back in gear," Shenfeld said.
"The prime minister and his government can no longer wallow in denial about what is happening," said Canadian Labour Congress president Ken Georgetti, arguing that families are being especially hard-hit with most of the job losses being among middle-aged adults and in full-time work.
Greenspan, making his first public comments on the economy since Dec. 11, said there are "tentative indications" the economic slump could be drawing to a close, but he said those signals are far from conclusive.
"I would emphasize that we continue to face significant risks in the near term," Greenspan said in a speech to a business audience in San Francisco.
He identified some of those threats as weak profits and business investment and restrained household spending caused by rising unemployment.
But Greenspan said there are some signs a recovery could soon begin.
"If the recent, more favourable developments continue and gain momentum, uncertainties will diminish."
Tory finance critic Scott Brison said the December budget was a "lost opportunity" by the government to stimulate the economy with strategic tax cuts.
However, Finance Minister Paul Martin has said that last year's tax and interest rate cuts are still injecting massive amounts of stimulus into the Canadian economy.
And the Bank of Canada will cut interest rates even further on Tuesday, the next pre-set date for any rate changes, analysts agreed.
"This soft report hands the Bank of Canada all the reason it needs to cut rates," said Nesbitt Burns economist Douglas Porter, adding that a hefty half-point reduction can't be ruled out.
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