Canada produced a surprising 40,000 new jobs in December, built on the back of a larger-than-expected 30,000 uptick in Ontario.

Statistics Canada reported Friday in its Labour Force Survey that Canada's unemployment rate dropped to 7.1 per cent last month, the lowest level in four years.

Economists were only expecting about 5,000 new jobs. 

Over the past five months, Canada's economy has added 187,300 new jobs.

All the December job gains came in full-time work. All in all, 1,400 part-time jobs were lost, but that was offset by 41,200 new full-time jobs.

The influx of new jobs was enough to push the rate lower, despite an increase in the overall pool of potential workers.

"I pay a lot of attention to the unemployment rate, and I think it is the single most reliable figure in the labour force report and it did show some real progress at the end of 2012," BMO economist Doug Porter said of the numbers.

Regional differences

Speaking at an auto-parts plant in Oakville, Ont., Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he was encouraged by the strong employment showing.

"We have more Canadians working today than ever before and we are one of the few advanced industrial economies that can say that," Harper said.

"I'm pleased to see that the economy is continuing to move that way."

But the rate is still higher than the six to seven per cent range it hovered in before the recession, Capital Economics noted.

"We doubt this run of good employment figures will last for much longer," said the firm's economist, Paul Ashworth.

Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island all posted job gains, although Ontario stood out with 33,000 net new jobs, the second straight month that province has posted such a strong showing.

Nova Scotia, Alberta and New Brunswick lost jobs during the month, while B.C. was basically unchanged.

By sector, construction was a standout, with 18,000 new jobs.

"A notable exception to the good news was a loss of jobs in the highest-paid industries," Canadian economist Erin Weir noted. "Employment declined in resource extraction and utilities, the best-paid goods-producing industries, and in professional, scientific and technical services, the best-paid part of the service sector."

With files from The Canadian Press