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HOUSING PRICES STILL HOT, BUT A COOLING TREND IS FORECAST

Even with economic storm clouds on the horizon, Canada's real estate market hums along with high price appreciation and record-breaking sales.

Supported by booming energy sectors, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick are experiencing the highest house price gains, Royal LePage Real Estate Services said in its latest survey.

There were no signs of the traditional seasonal slowdown and "surprisingly strong" price increases and unwavering demand" in the last quarter of 2007, said Royal LePage president Phil Soper.

Nationally, detached bungalows increased to an average of $337,555, up 11.6 percent, while standard two-story houses rose to $399,738, a jump of 11.3 percent. Average condominiums were up to $240,395, a climb of 11.7 percent for the year.

Regina and Saskatoon lead the country, with bungalows rising more than 50 percent, while prices rose 43 percent in Saint John, New Brunswick, and 21 percent in Winnipeg. Double-digit gains were recorded in Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria.

A less frenetic real estate market is expected as the economy starts to slow because of less demand for Canada's exports and manufacturing job losses.

"With the U.S. economy likely to contract modestly in the first half of the year, Canada's economy will brush up against bigger ice floes this year," said Sal Guatieri, the Bank of Montreal's senior economist.

Toronto school proposal disputed

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is "disappointed" with the Toronto District School Board's plan to establish a controversial "black focused" school.

The board narrowly approved a motion to open Canada's first school of its type to reflect the needs of its 30,000 black students whose family origins are largely from Caribbean countries.

High dropout rates and underachieving students are problems not just in Toronto, so creating such a school isn't the answer, Conservative education critic Elizabeth Witmer said.

"I don't support it," McGuinty said, adding: "The best way for us to educate our children is to bring them together so they can come together, learn together and grow together."

News in brief

-Hundreds of flights were canceled Friday at Toronto's Pearson airport and schools and businesses were closed after a snowstorm from the U.S. Midwest roared into eastern Canada, dumping about 8 inches of snow. The storm then moved into Quebec and the Maritimes, while crews continued to restore power to thousands of people in Prince Edward Island after an ice storm Monday.

-Montreal Canadiens fans are rallying behind hockey legend Guy Lafleur, who was arrested on accusations he gave contradictory testimony at his son's bail hearing. Mark Lafleur faces about 20 criminal charges, including sexually assaulting a minor. The accusations concern Guy Lafleur's testimony that his son was respecting a court-ordered curfew while in his parents' custody.

Facts and figures

The Canadian dollar has been showing some volatility - climbing above and falling below parity with the U.S. currency.

The dollar was worth $1.0059 U.S. Friday while the U.S. greenback returned 99.41 cents Canadian, before bank exchanges fees.

Canadian stock markets were mixed, with the Toronto Exchange index up to 13,206 points Friday and the TSX Venture Exchange lower at 2,566 points.

Lotto 6-49: (Wednesday) 1, 20, 21, 23, 40 and 41; bonus 12. (Jan. 26) 1, 5, 11, 37, 44 and 47; bonus 36. Super 7: (Jan. 25) 4, 9, 10, 17, 26, 32 and 33; bonus 27.

Regional briefs

-U.S. computermaker Dell is blaming slower sales and the higher-valued Canadian dollar for the closure of its call center in Edmonton, which employs 900 people. An "unspecified" number of the 1,500 call center jobs are being cut in Ottawa along with ending plans to hire another 1,200 employees there.

-Paul McCartney is again speaking out against the annual Canadian seal hunt. The music legend is calling on animal lovers to pressure the European Union to proceed with a ban on seal products, a huge market for the hunters. He and his former wife, Heather Mills, went to the Gulf of St. Lawrence two years ago to protest against the hunt.

Jim Fox can be reached at canadareport@hotmail.com.

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