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Shipping containers sit stacked at the Fairview Cove Container Terminal in Halifax on Aug. 25, 2017.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The Canadian economy stalled in February, Statscan said on Thursday, as parliament’s budget watchdog warned that a dramatic contraction was possible this year, with a spike in deficit and debt levels.

Statistics Canada said growth potential was affected in February by a teacher’s strike in Ontario and as the global spread of the coronavirus disrupted the movement of people and goods. Analysts in a Reuters poll had forecast a 0.1 per cent increase.

The economy could have shrunk a record 9 per cent in March, Statscan said in a flash estimate earlier this month, as the coronavirus and a plunge in oil prices sank in.

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Officials have shuttered non-essential businesses and urged people to stay home since mid-March to slow the spread of the outbreak. Ottawa has also rolled out billions of dollars in fiscal aid for businesses and individuals to weather the pandemic.

On Thursday, Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) released an updated economic analysis, including a scenario in which real GDP in 2020 could shrink 12 per cent, with a possible 20 per cent contraction in the second quarter alone. That would be the worst GDP data since the series was compiled in 1961, the PBO said, noting that the scenarios were not forecasts.

In a March 27 scenario analysis, the PBO had assumed real GDP growth in 2020 would fall by 5.1 per cent.

Based on the worsening growth scenario, the PBO estimated the federal government’s deficit could swell to $252.1 billion ($181.38 billion) in 2020-21, or 12.7 per cent of GDP. As of April 24, Ottawa’s aid package totaled $146 billion, it added.

The PBO estimated that Canada’s debt-to-GDP ratio in 2020-21 would be 48.4 per cent.

The Statscan report on February GDP said educational services fell 1.8 per cent, the most since June 2014, due to intensifying rotating strikes by elementary and secondary school teachers in Ontario.

The country’s transportation and warehousing sector contracted 1.1 per cent, as seven of the 10 subsectors declined. Rail transportation dropped 5.1 per cent as protesters blocked domestic rail lines, while air transportation fell 2.6 per cent as carriers canceled some international flights.

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In a separate release, Statistics Canada said Canadian producer prices fell 0.9 per cent in March from February on lower energy and petroleum prices, while raw material prices plummeted 15.6 per cent.

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