The number of Employment Insurance beneficiaries jumped by 10.6 per cent -- or 65,300 people -- in March from the previous month, Statistics Canada reported Tuesday, a surge attributed to significant increases in Alberta and British Columbia.

The hike, which was the largest month-to-month increase since labour market conditions began rapidly deteriorating in October 2008, puts the number of EI beneficiaries at 681,400.

Since October, the number of EI beneficiaries nationwide has risen by 36.2 per cent.

Both Alberta and B.C. posted month-over-month increases that were higher than the national average.

In Alberta, the number of EI beneficiaries rose by 32.1 per cent to 42,200, which is the fastest monthly increase for the province. Since October, the number of EI beneficiaries in the province has increased by 131.1 per cent.

In B.C., the number of beneficiaries in March jumped by 26.7 per to 82,200, which was also the fastest monthly increase for the province. Since October, the number of beneficiaries in B.C. has surged by 80.5 per cent.

As the news reached Parliament, the opposition parties continued to hammer the government to change the EI system.

Both the Liberals and the NDP have been pressuring the Tories to extend the duration of EI benefits and soften eligibility requirements so workers with less yearly hours of work can qualify.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff pointed to fishermen in Atlantic Canada who don't have enough hours to receive benefits.

"Collapsing prices are forcing fishermen to let their crew go ... Thousands of them might not qualify for EI at all," he said.

Despite the news, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the rise in EI beneficiaries shows the country's unemployment system is helping Canadians weather the recession.

Looking at year-over-year increases, StatsCan reported that the number of EI beneficiaries has more than doubled in most major urban centres.

Between March 2008 and March 2009, EI recipients jumped by 187.0 per cent in Calgary to 15,400, while the number of recipients jumped by 185.6 per cent in Edmonton, to 14,700.

"In Alberta, the drop in employment in recent months has mostly hit construction, trade, manufacturing and professional, scientific and technical services," the agency said.

In B.C., the number of EI recipients tripled in Cranbrook and Kelowna and more than doubled in 13 other regions from March 2008 to March 2009.

Big jumps in B.C. cities

The number of beneficiaries in Victoria increased by 159.4 per cent and by 136.0 per cent in Vancouver.

"During the same period, the decrease in employment in British Columbia affected a large number of sectors, including construction; manufacturing; trade; forestry and logging; and transportation and warehousing," StatsCan said.

The agency reported some good news Tuesday. The number of initial and renewal claims in March was 318,900, down a modest 1.9 per cent compared to February.

Despite the decrease, the number of claims was the second highest since comparable data first became available in 1997.

Seven provinces recorded an increase in claims, the biggest being in Alberta (up 16.0 per cent), Prince Edward Island (up 8.6 per cent), Saskatchewan (up 8.5 per cent) and Manitoba (up 5.8 per cent).

Ontario and B.C. both had fewer claims in March, after posting the highest number of claims in February since 1997.

Andrew Sharpe, executive director of the Ottawa-based Centre for the Study of Living Standards, told CTV News Channel that the numbers aren't surprising, given that unemployment rose in March.

Still, Sharpe noted that the number of Canadians claiming benefits could drop in the coming months, but for all the wrong reasons.

In some parts of the country, EI expires after six months, meaning recipients will be "cut off" in the future, said Sharpe.

"Of course we can change that through policies," he said, adding that unemployment will likely continue to rise over the coming months.