Postal System

The postal system is a network of postal facilities serving people in all parts of Canada, of transportation services linking post offices, and thousands of people dedicated to transmitting mail. It is a service used for personal, social and commercial purposes. Co-operation between postal systems transcends political differences and makes it possible to exchange mail almost anywhere in the world.

Post Offices

Postal stations are an extension of the main post office and provide the basic services. Sub-post offices are found in stores and businesses for the convenience of the public. In these the owner of the business acts as the postmaster and provides a postal clerk as necessary. In rural areas of a certain density a rural delivery service is provided. In some cases group mail boxes may be set up at convenient points where customers can pick up their mail. Lock boxes are also provided in urban locations. Mail may be sent to a specific address or by general delivery to a post office to be picked up by the addressee.

Canada Post delivers approximately 13 billion pieces of mail to some 15 million Canadian residential and business addresses, operating from more than 20 major plants and numerous other processing facilities nationwide and maintaining about 6 600 post offices. With postal operations representing about 80% of consolidated revenues, Canada Post also owns controlling stakes in Purolator Courier, a Canadian overnight delivery company, SCI Group, which provides supply chain management services, and joint venture Innovapost, which handles the Group's computing and information systems.

Postal History

Early commerce required a means of exchanging information as well as goods and services. The growth of empires required a speedy and reliable system for issuing orders and receiving and responding to reports. Using a system of relay posts, ancient Egypt was able to send messages quickly over long distances. The Romans, with fast horses and good roads, were able to assure next-day delivery up to 280 km by post. The next great improvement came with the development of steam vehicles in the 19th century. The railways carried mail over 800 km in a day. In the 20th century, aircraft carry mail thousands of kilometres a day, and recently with electronic facsimile transmittal by satellite, mail has been sent around the world in only a few hours.

The modern postal system began in England with the introduction of the adhesive postage stamp by Rowland Hill in 1837. Hill also devised the uniform postage-rate schedules based on weight, rather than size, and made the prepayment of postage both possible and practical. The British government adopted Hill's system in May 1840 and its use quickly became worldwide.

Significant Developments in Canada

When the French arrived in North America in the 16th century, messages were carried among the native people by swift and trusted messengers. The French adopted the practice of using canoes between settlements along the St Lawrence River. In 1735 a road was opened between Québec and Montréal and a special messenger was appointed to carry official dispatches. He also carried messages for a fee. At intervals along the route "Post Houses" with a "Maître de poste" were set up to receive messages and fees and to provide conveyance to the next post.

In 1753 Benjamin Franklin was appointed deputy postmaster general for the British colonies. In 1755 Franklin organized the first regular monthly mail packet service between Falmouth, England, and New York and opened the first official post office in Canada in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to link Halifax with the Atlantic colonies and the packet service to England. A post office for local and outgoing mail had been started by Benjamin Leigh in Halifax in April 1754.

After the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Franklin established a post office in Québec City with subsidiaries in Montréal and Trois-Rivières. A Scottish immigrant, Hugh Finlay, became postmaster. A monthly courier service by way of Lake Champlain connected Montréal with New York and the Atlantic packet service. In 1774 Franklin was dismissed because of his sympathy with the American revolutionary cause, and Finlay became deputy postmaster general for the northern colonies. By 1775 the mails were being seriously disrupted by the revolutionaries, and because of the threat to the couriers' lives Finlay stopped the inland service. Peace returned in 1783 and on 7 July 1784 Hugh Finlay became the deputy postmaster general for Canada. The revolution brought a major immigration of Loyalists to Canada and a demand for improved postal services. Early in 1784 Finlay hired a courier, Pierre Durand, to pioneer a Canadian route to Halifax from Québec City through 1000 km of forest. The round trip with the mail took 15 weeks.

By 1851 there were deputy postmasters general in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province of Canada, but the British government still administered the postal system. The provincial deputies were convinced that they could operate the system more efficiently and petitioned Queen Victoria for a transfer of authority. The queen's approval was gazetted on 22 February 1851 and became effective 5 April 1851. From then until Confederation, the provinces co-operated in providing the mail service required, with W.H. Griffin, secretary in charge, reporting to the Honourable James Morris, postmaster general of the Province of Canada. The new decentralized, co-operative arrangement lived up to the expectation of its advocates. Rates were reduced and volumes doubled in the first year of provincial co-operation.

By 1850 sail had largely given way to steam as a reliable way to move the mail over Canada's major water routes. During the navigation season mail steamers regularly carried mail from Kingston to Montréal, and from Montréal to Québec. In 1852 these services were put on an interconnecting schedule and extended to the head of Lake Ontario to speed up the mail from Canada West. By 1865 there were mail steam boats on the Upper Lakes connecting Parry Sound, Collingwood, Sault Ste Marie and Fort William with the US Postal Service. A weekly steamer service also brought mail from Québec to the Gaspé and the ports around the Gulf of St Lawrence.

In 1860 the postal department decided to establish its own Atlantic service from Montréal to Liverpool, England. The year 1861 was disastrous. The Canadian struck ice and foundered off Newfoundland on June 4, and the North Briton went down on the Perroquet Rocks in the Gulf of St Lawrence on November 5. New rules made the service safer, more reliable and less costly, and by 1890 Canada had scheduled Ocean Mail services to Britain and Europe from Montréal and Halifax, to the West Indies from St John, and to China and Japan from Vancouver, A direct line to Australia calling at Honolulu and Fiji was established in 1893.

In 1899 the Canadian Development Co took over the mail service from the North-West Mounted Police and began a semi-weekly boat service between Atlin and Bennett, and between Bennett and Dawson during the navigation season in the Yukon. Postal clerks began sorting and distributing the mail en route on the Niagara-to-London [Ontario] run in 1854. By 1857 there were specially equipped cars called railway post offices, and the railway mail service had reduced the delivery time for a letter from Québec City to Windsor [Ont] from about 10 days to a dependable 49 hours. By 1863 the trial period for the travelling post offices was over and an order-in-council established the standards for their use on the Grand Trunk Railway 12 August 1863.

The post office was one of the first federal-government departments formed after Confederation and took over the postal service on 1 April 1868. As the Canadian Pacific Railway stretched across the prairies in the 1880s a railway post office, addressed "End of the Line," moved with it, bringing banking, money-order and mail-order facilities to the settlers. On 28 June 1886 another railway mail car left Montréal and arrived in Port Moody, BC, on July 4. It began a national mail service which for 80 years was the envy of the world. Free letter-carrier delivery service was introduced in Montréal on 1 October 1874. Free rural mail delivery began between Hamilton and Ancaster, Ontario, on 10 October 1908. Captain Brian Peck flew the first official Canadian air mail from Montréal to Toronto 24 June 1918. Two weeks later, Katherine Stinson became Canada's first woman air-mail pilot when she flew 259 authorized letters from Calgary to Edmonton. Prepaid, stamped air mail was flown between Haileybury, Ontario, and Rouyn, Québec, 21 September 1924, reducing mail time between these remote northern mining towns from weeks to a few hours.

On 4 October 1927 the first contract air-mail service commenced between Lac du Bonnet, Bissett and Wadhope in Manitoba. The post office also began an experimental air service (1927) to meet the ocean liners at Rimouski and fly the mail to Québec, Montréal and Ottawa. This service continued until 1939. In January 1929, famed bush pilot Punch Dickins, with engineer L. Parmenter, F. Lundy of Western Canada Airways and post office inspector T.J. Reilly, flew mail to Fort McMurray, Fort Resolution and Aklavik. In December 1929 air mail between Fort McMurray and Aklavik linked the Northwest Territories with the postal system and established a postal service 480 km within the Arctic Circle. An air-mail contract helped finance Trans-Canada Airlines in 1937. On 1 March 1939 a daily air-mail service between Montréal and Vancouver began. It was extended to the Maritimes in January 1940. On 1 July 1948 Canada became the first country in the world to introduce domestic "all-up" service. First-class mail was carried by air at regular postage rates.

Technological Change

In the 19th century steamboats and trains made it possible to carry more mail quickly over long distances, at the same time sorting it en route, thus eliminating some of the dead time and post-office handling. Mechanization of the postal transportation system brought a tremendous improvement in speed and reliability. In the 1920s the introduction of conveyor belts, elevators and gravity-feed systems greatly reduced the time and labour required to move mail within the post offices. An Alberta mail man, J.A. Lapierre, built a snow machine to deliver mail between St Paul and St Lina, Alberta, in the winter of 1923. He replaced the front wheels of a Model T Ford with skis. The front wheels were then connected in tandem with the rear wheels and a double-length set of chains went on over each pair of wheels. The enclosed cab used heat from the radiator, and the machine looked not unlike an early snowmobile. It worked so well it was used as a taxi to dances and meetings when the roads were otherwise impassable.

The introduction of the all-up air-mail service, the improvement in paved roads and trucking services and a railway strike in 1950 brought about the rapid decline of the railway mail service and shifted its sortation load back into the post offices. Air mail also increased the public's expectations of the postal service. People now anticipated delivery at the speed of the airplane.

Distribution systems became more complicated as the nation grew and became urbanized and as the composition of the mail changed. Then, in the mid-1960s, the annual examinations on distribution skills and rules and regulations were dropped, and the speed and efficiency of the manual memory sortation declined. To meet this problem the simplified alphabetic sortation, used at Christmas, was extended. It required less training, but more people, overtaxing crowded facilities and equipment. The obvious need was to mechanize the sortation process itself.

The Post Office Department first sought to simplify and streamline existing work methods and make the best of existing facilities through work simplification, measurement and standardization. This led to mechanizing the steps of the sortation process. A British-designed mechanical segregating, facing and cancelling machine called Sefacan was introduced in Winnipeg, and a sortation machine from Holland, called the Transorma, was installed in Peterborough in the 1950s. The early machines were noisy and inefficient.

The Post Office Department then commissioned Dr Maurice Levy, an electronics scientist, to design and supervise the building of a new, electronic, computer-controlled, automatic mail sortation system for Canada. A hand-made model sorter was tested at postal headquarters, Ottawa, in 1953. It worked, and a prototype coding and sortation machine, capable of processing all of the mail then generated by the City of Ottawa, was built by Canadian manufacturers and assembled in the Langevin Building, Ottawa, in 1956. It could process mail at a rate of 30 000 letters per hour, with a missort factor of less than 1 letter in 10 000.

Visitors from around the world who came to the Universal Postal Union Congress in 1957 were impressed, but a change of government brought about the closing of Dr Levy's laboratory. Further development was contracted to Canadair, Montréal, which was unable to complete the work, and eventually the equipment was sold for scrap. In 1970 Canada Post chose a proven Belgian coding system and letter-sorting machine, and Japanese-designed, high-speed culler-facer-canceller and optical character reader equipment.

The Postal Process

When a person deposits a letter in the red mailbox on the corner, the box is cleared at a scheduled time and the letter is taken by truck to the main post office where parcels, large envelopes and metered mail are separated out and the rest is sent to be cancelled. Mail addressed to the community in which it was posted is sorted by street names into letter-carrier routes or sent to postal stations for the letter carriers, who sort it by street and house number for delivery. The letter carrier takes about 16 kg at a time in his bag. The rest is taken by truck to relay boxes at convenient places along the letter carrier's route. Large parcels are delivered by drivers. Mail addressed to places outside the community is sorted, packaged and sent to the country, city or distribution centre for that address. There it is sorted again and put into boxes to be picked up, turned over to the letter carriers or rural mail couriers for delivery to the addressee.

Starting in Ottawa in 1972, the post office installed equipment to mechanize the sortation process. The system is based on a 6-character postal code which forms the last line of every address. This postal code is made up of alphabet letters and numbers, arranged in the order ANA NAN. The first group, ANA, represents a geographic area; the second group, NAN, is a local code that may identify a street, an apartment building or a group of rural post offices. Mail brought into a letter processing plant (LPP) is unloaded, dropped onto a conveyor and taken to a bag shake-out machine. There it is shaken out and taken by a conveyor to a culling station where oversize, undersize and nonacceptable articles are removed to be sorted manually. The mail then goes to a culler-facer-canceller (CFC) where it is culled again if it does not meet machine standards of size and thickness. The machine then faces up the remainder and the stamp is located by a photoelectric cell that triggers its cancellation. Letters are then stacked in coded trays and sent to a temporary storing system from which a computer dispatches them to the next step according to a scheduling program.

The next step may be an optical character reader (OCR), which locates and reads typed or printed codes and applies a coloured-bar code that actuates a letter-sorting machine (LSM). As many as 20 000 letters an hour can be sorted into the LSM's destination bins. Addresses that cannot be identified by the OCR are rejected and sent to the group desk suite (GDS) where the code is read by an operator who keys the coloured-bar code onto the letter by hand. Uncoded or indecipherable coded letters are rejected at the GDS and sent to manual sorters. Both the OCR and the GDS take care of the primary sortation of the mail and add the bar codes for the final sortation by the LSM.

Mail that does not meet the standards, or does not bear the code legibly printed, has to be separated out of the main flow. Large envelopes or magazines, called flats, are sent to flat-sorting machines (FSM) for processing. Small parcels and small objects such as hotel keys also have their own sorting system. An operator indicates their postal code to a computer, which directs them to a mechanism that sorts them according to their destination. Standard mail, parcels, large envelopes or manually sorted mail come together in a consolidation area where mail for a particular destination is assembled and packaged for transport by conveyor or fork lift to the dispatching dock. Local mail goes out to the postal stations by shuttle trucks for delivery. Forward mail goes by truck to other post offices or to the air-mail facility (AMF) for shipment to other cities or countries.

The Universal Postal Union

The Universal Postal Union is an international organization that facilitates the exchange of mail between nations. It is a forum in which countries can discuss and work out problems that interfere with the free flow of mail among them. It originated in Berne, Switzerland, in 1874, and Canada became a member in 1878. The Universal Postal Union is a specialized agency of the United Nations, made up of 168 member countries comprising a single postal territory. Freedom of transit for postal items is guaranteed throughout the union territory. Canada is also a member of the Postal Union of the Americas and Spain (PUAS) in which it has played an active role.

Canada Post Corporation

Canada Post became the Canada Post Corporation on 16 October 1981. Deputy Postmaster General J.C. Corkery was replaced by President R. Michael Warren, reporting to a board of directors chaired by Judge R.J. Marin. The assistant deputies were replaced by executive vice-presidents and vice-presidents, and the crown corporation was reorganized along divisional lines.

Collective bargaining is, under the rules of the Canada Labour Code, administered by the Canada Labour Relations Board and the federal Department of Labour. The Canadian Union Of Postal Workers (CUPW) represents 54 000 members divided into 210 locals, working as rural and suburban mail carriers, letter carriers, mail service couriers, postal clerks, mail handlers, mail despatchers, technicians, mechanics, electricians and electronic technicians. CUPW also represents cleaners, couriers, drivers, vehicle mechanics, warehouse workers, mail house workers, emergency medical dispatchers, bicycle couriers and other workers in more than 15 private sector bargaining units.

Postal Delivery In The Digital Age

Canada Post faces significant challenges, including difficulties in the area of labour relations that have led to lock-outs and strikes. It has also had to deal with problems associated with embracing the digital revolution while building on its core strength, which is the ability to match the flow of digital information with a parallel flow of physically-represented goods including print material. Looking to the burgeoning e-commerce market as its salvation, Canada Post is working to resolve cost structure challenges that inevitably accompany new technologies.

As the inbox replaces the mailbox and physical letter mail in Canada drops significantly, Canada Post is modernizing to stay competitive, manage changing volumes and market demands, and position itself for future growth. Canada Post is investing in a Postal Transformation to upgrade equipment, vehicles, and computer systems, including new generation mail-processing equipment and systems, new ergonomic fuel-efficient vehicles, and newly designed carts and containers for moving the mail safely through facilities.

New delivery models include equipment to pre-sequence the majority of lettermail according to the delivery agent's line of travel along the route. Delivery agents are equipped with portable data terminals providing real-time access to communication services; for example, the ability to update delivery information for parcel tracking and confirmation of incorrect customer addresses. Integrated web services link directly into businesses' e-commerce platforms, websites, and custom applications using proprietary APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), enabling online stores, e-commerce platforms and developers to add real-time shipping, tracking, estimates, pickups and returns directly into platforms, websites and custom applications.

Launched in 2000, the free-of-charge "personal, digital mailbox" ePost was the first bill consolidator in Canada. Currently boasting more than 7.7 million subscribers, the service offers subscribers a single online location with one login and password to manage household bills and essential documents and is fully integrated with Canada's six major banks. A new "vault" system, allow individuals and businesses to store documents like bills, receipts, tax returns, bank statements for up to seven years for a fee. Files are encrypted and are protected by bank-grade security in level 3 data centres featuring disaster-recovery replication, off-site backups, and multiple redundant independent power supplies.

More information about the postal system can be obtained from the National Postal Museum in Ottawa and from the Corporate Communications Branch of the Canada Post Corporation.