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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada posted its worst monthly jobs loss in more than four years in March, another sign the economy is struggling to cope with weak foreign markets and a strong Canadian dollar.
Canada shed 54,500 positions in March, more than wiping out the 50,700 jobs that were added in February, Statistics Canada said on Friday. Market operators had expected a modest gain of 8,500 jobs.
It was the biggest monthly jobs loss since February 2009, when the economy shed 69,300 positions. The March unemployment rate rose to 7.2 percent from 7.0 percent.
"This was a lot weaker than expected ... so far this year it is pointing to weakening employment relative to strong gains in the second half of last year," said Paul Ferley, assistant chief economist at Royal Bank of Canada.
The economy's continuing challenges mean there is little pressure on the Bank of Canada to raise interest rates from near-record lows. "It's going to keep the Bank of Canada cautious," Ferley said.
Overnight index swaps, which trade based on expectations for the central bank's key policy rate, showed that after the data traders increased their bets, albeit still small, on a rate cut in late 2013.
In January, the central bank forecast first-quarter economic growth of 2.3 percent, which now looks overly optimistic.
"The employment numbers did seem to be defying gravity up until March and were not lining up with the underlying growth numbers," said Doug Porter, chief economist at BMO Capital Markets. "We knew one of them had to give way and it looks as if employment has given way."
Adding to the gloom were trade figures for February that showed Canada's deficit increased to C$1.02 billion on both lower exports and higher imports. Traders had expected a surplus of C$200 million.
In a contrary signal, the pace of purchasing activity jumped more than expected in March. The seasonally adjusted Ivey Purchasing Managers Index rose to 61.6 from 51.1 in February, higher than the analysts' forecast of 52.4.
The Canadian dollar weakened against its U.S. counterpart after the March employment data in both nations came in far weaker than expected.
The Canadian currency fell to C$1.0207 to the U.S. dollar, or 97.97 U.S. cents, down from Thursday's North American session close of C$1.0123 to the U.S. dollar, or 98.78 U.S. cents, after the data was released.
On average, about 8,600 jobs per month have been lost in Canada since January. This trend could pose a political challenge for the Conservative government, which likes to boast Canada has the most impressive economic record of any Group of Seven nation.
The official opposition New Democrats said Ottawa's focus on keeping costs under control is wrong and called for more infrastructure spending.
"We need the stimulus now," said Peggy Nash, the party's finance spokeswoman. The office of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty did not respond to a request for comment.
Almost all the job losses were in full-time positions. The manufacturing sector, particularly affected by the strong Canadian dollar and struggling customers, lost 24,200 jobs.
"This helps to reconcile some of the difference between some of the slowing economic activity with the labor market that had previously been a lot stronger than we would have anticipated," said David Tulk, chief Canada macro strategist at TD Securities.
Employment also fell in the public administration and accommodation and food services sectors. Private sector employment dropped by 85,400 positions, while the number of self-employed grew by 38,700.
The average hourly wage of permanent employees was 2.1 percent higher in March 2013 than in March 2012, down from the 2.2 percent year-on-year advance recorded in February 2013.
In the February trade figures, exports shrank by 0.6 percent while imports edged up by 0.1 percent.
Exports to the United States - which took 73.8 percent of all Canadian exports in February - dropped by 1.1 percent, while imports grew by 0.8 percent. As a result, Canada's trade surplus with the United States fell to C$3.40 billion in February from C$3.90 billion in January.
Additional reporting by Andrea Hopkins, Allison Martell and Euan Rocha; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Nick Zieminski and Peter Galloway