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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian housing starts slowed in January as groundbreaking on new homes fell to the lowest level in four years in provinces that have been hurt by the downturn in the energy sector, a report from the national housing agency showed on Friday.
The seasonally adjusted annualized rate of housing starts fell to 165,861 units last month from a downwardly revised 172,533 units in December, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp (CMHC) said. The report had originally been scheduled for release on Feb. 8.
Bob Dugan, CMHC's chief economist, said the overall decline was mostly attributable to a slowdown in the Prairie provinces, with the six-month moving average in the region at a four-year low.
Separate data on Friday showed that in Alberta, where the country's vast oil sands are located, January's unemployment rate rose to its highest level since February 1996.
In the Prairies, which include Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, starts in urban areas fell 8.9 percent to 29,273 units.
"That makes a lot of sense given we're seeing a pretty dramatic slowdown in housing demand in areas like Calgary," said Robert Kavcic, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.
Nonetheless, the overall number of starts was weaker than expected given unusually warm winter weather in parts of the country, said Kavcic, who had been anticipating something closer to 190,000.
Ontario, Canada's most populous province, was a standout with urban starts rising 12.7 percent to 58,602 units.
"This is probably something you're going to see right through 2016 where housing starts in (the Prairies) grind down a little bit further still," said Kavcic. "On the flip side, you're probably going to see stability, if not some more strength, in areas like Toronto and Vancouver."
Reporting by Leah Schnurr; Editing by Tom Brown