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Fewer Canadians received jobless benefits in the start of the year, and the number of new claims continued to decline.

The number of people receiving employment insurance fell 6.4 per cent to 698,800 in January from a month earlier, Statistics Canada said Wednesday, the fourth straight monthly decline. The report does not include the number of people who exhausted their EI benefits.

New claims also subsided as the economy picked up at the end of the year. The number of initial and renewal claims, which indicates how many people will become beneficiaries, fell 7.8 per cent to 239,100. These claims fell in every province except Newfoundland and Labrador, with the largest drop in Ontario.

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"The number of initial and renewal claims received has been on a downward trend since May, 2009, with declines in every province," the agency said.

The smaller number of new claims is further evidence the labour market is starting to heal. The jobless rate, though still elevated, fell to a 10-month low of 8.2 per cent last month, and employers have added jobs in five of the past seven months.

Still, "while the labour market is now getting better rather than worse, some 1.5 million Canadians remain officially unemployed," said Erin Weir, economist at United Steelworkers. "Today's numbers indicate that the EI program is helping a decreasing percentage of them."

Though cities have seen EI claims ease in recent months, numbers are still elevated from year-ago levels. They've doubled in Edmonton and Calgary, and swelled by more than 50 per cent in Greater Sudbury, Regina and Saskatoon.

The overall number of people on EI is 19.8 per cent higher than a year ago.

As of January, the year-over-year rate of growth in the number of EI beneficiaries was faster among women, at 20.6 per cent, than among men, at 12.8 per cent.

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The biggest declines in January's number of EI beneficiaries were Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec.

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