OTTAWA - The opposition pounced Friday on the Conservative government's insistence that the Canadian economy is still strong despite unexpectedly grim job numbers and an unemployment rate that ticked upwards in December.
The numbers serve as a reminder that the "economic recovery remains fragile, and we must stay focused on our plan to grow the economy and keep taxes low to create the environment where job creation can flourish," Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said in a statement.
Monthly job numbers are "volatile and our overall trend is positive," he added.
That proclamation was met with ridicule from Flaherty's political foes on Parliament Hill.
"When they say, essentially, 'don't worry, be happy,' they are showing how completely out of touch they are with Canada's youth and their middle-class families," said Scott Brison, the Liberal finance critic.
Youth unemployment is a particularly stubborn problem for the federal government.
The jobless rate for Canadians aged 15-24 climbed last month to 14 per cent from 13.4 per cent — almost double the rate for the general population, pegged at 7.2 per cent by Statistics Canada for December.
The youth jobless rate peaked at 16.4 per cent in July 2009. It was at 11 per cent a year earlier, before the global recession took hold.
"Youth unemployment and under-employment has led to a record number of young Canadians, in their 20s, with good educations, living at home because they can't find work," said Brison, who added that subsidizing young family members is a main cause of debt for many Canadian middle-class families.
Peggy Nash, the NDP's finance critic, said the numbers prove that Conservative boasting about their strong stewardship of the economy isn't based in fact.
"It sadly reaffirms what we've been raising with the finance minister for some time now," said Nash.
"They've been bragging about their employment record but the facts simply don't back them up. And according to the parliamentary budget officer, their last budget, in fact, caused more job loss than job creation due to the cuts they've made to the public sector."
She added: "Of course we have jobs that have been gained from the depths of the recession. But are we keeping up with our population growth? Absolutely we are not."
Statistics Canada says the Canadian economy lost 45,900 jobs in December as the unemployment rate rose to 7.2 per cent for the final month of the year, compared with 6.9 per cent in November.
The December drop was led by a decline in full-time jobs, which fell by roughly 60,000. That loss was offset in part by a gain of 14,200 part-time jobs.
Sonya Gulati, senior economist for TD Economics, urged cooler heads to prevail in Ottawa and beyond, noting that retail sales, consumer spending and the still-hot Canadian housing market bode well for the economic outlook in the months to come.
"When you take a look from the broader perspective of the overall economy in Canada, there are still a lot of positive factors to highlight, and that leads us to believe that the December number is a one-off," Gulati said.
She added that the falling Canadian dollar might represent a looming boon, even though currency fluctuations create winners and losers in any economy.
"But it's the export sector that we've really been counting on and relying upon to drive external demand, and so this is one sector that really needs strong, contributing momentum," she said.
"And so a lower Canadian dollar does help out this particular sector which represents a third of the Canadian economy, and 70 to 80 per cent of our trade is with the United States, after all."
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