That's the worst month for Canadian employment since before the last recession, in February 2009. When added to the numbers for January and February, they show that Canada's economy has lost 26,000 jobs so far in 2013 as a whole.
The job losses pushed Canada's jobless rate higher to 7.2 per cent.
"Official unemployment would have increased even more but for 12,300 Canadians dropping out of the labour force altogether and consequently not being counted as unemployed," United Steelworkers economist Erin Weir said of the data.
Provincially, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta lost jobs, and employment edged down in Ontario. The only province with an increase was Nova Scotia.
Private sector hiring, the engine of growth that policymakers keep a close eye on, actually fared even worse. There were 85,000 fewer private sector workers in March, while the public sector was largely unchanged,
Loonie sinks on news
There was an increase of 39,000 among self-employed people that counteracted the decline.
Overall, economists had been expecting about 6,500 new jobs, so a loss of 54,500 represents a considerable miss.
"When you dig below the headline, it's even worse," TD Bank economist Craig Alexander said. For most of 2012, the monthly jobs number was much higher than economic growth would have indicated, a trend that can't continue forever, Alexander said.
While he doubts large job losses will be the norm, he does expect several months of, at best, modest jobs growth from here on out. Something in the range of 10,000 to 15,000 new jobs a month, he says.
"It's going to keep the unemployment rate about where it is today," Alexander said.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty focused on the positive, noting the broader trend is still one of job creation. "This is a snapshot in time," Flaherty said in a statement. "If you look at job creation since the depth of the global recession July 2009, employment in Canada has increased by nearly 900,000 and is now more than 465,000 above its pre-recession peak."
Much of the losses came among those in the core working-age group of those between 25 and 54. Among those younger than 25 and older than 54, the job numbers were pretty steady.
The Canadian dollar lost half a cent to trade below 98 cents US in reaction to the news.
"The loonie did take a big step back in the wake of the dismal data, but remains curiously close to parity given the onslaught of disappointing news for Canadian growth in recent months," Bank of Montreal economist Doug Porter noted.