Canadian postal history evolves with transportation

By Jesse Robitaille

This week, and most other weeks of the year, Canadian postal couriers will travel more than 1.6 million kilometres during their dispatches from coast to coast to coast, ensuring the country’s postal services remain intact.

That’s about 86 million kilometres (more than half the distance to the sun) travelled each year on behalf of Canada Post. And with about 6,000 post offices scattered across the country, there’s more to the Crown corporation’s network than its dedicated postal workers. Various modes of transportation—everything from carriages to dog sleds and airplanes—have played a significant role in moving mail across Canada.

“Throughout history, Canada Post has championed every new mode of transportation in its ongoing effort to provide prompt, reliable, universal mail delivery,” said Anick Losier, Canada Post media relations director. “From horse-drawn wagons and stagecoaches, to trains, automobiles, planes and alternative fuel vehicles, Canada Post has been at the cutting edge of transportation technology.”


According to former CBC producer Paul O’Neill’s 2003 book The Oldest City, The Story of St. John’s, Newfoundland, the first known letter sent from North America left St. John’s in August 1527. However, despite this early bit of postal history, it would be another two centuries before a proper postal system was proposed in Canada, which was then under French control.

Until 1735, mail from Quebec had to be transported to Montreal by river; however, that year, a road was opened between the two French colonies and a courier began carrying dispatches for a fee. Along this route, “post houses,” as they were originally known, began being established every 14 kilometres, where a “maître de poste” (or postmaster) would receive messages and fees and convey mail to the next post house.

In 1753, U.S. Founding Father and noted polymath Benjamin Franklin was appointed as the first deputy postmaster general for the British colonies, including Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, where he established Canada’s first post office in Halifax.

A decade later, after the Treaty of Paris saw France cede Canada and all its dependencies to Britain in 1763, Franklin established a post office in Quebec City and a subsidiary in both Montreal and Trois-Rivières.

Two years later, one of the first mail vehicles, a two-wheeled horse-drawn carriage known as a calèche, began being used in British North America, marking the beginning of postal service during British control.

By the following decade, Franklin would be dismissed from his position of deputy postmaster general because of his growing sympathy toward his country’s revolutionary interests. However, his legacy has not gone unnoticed by Canada Post, which in 2013 issued a Permanent-rate stamp (Scott #2649) featuring Franklin in commemoration of 250 years of postal history in Canada.

By 1775, a year before the U.S. declared independence, mail service within the British colonies was being disrupted by U.S. revolutionaries, and because of the threat to his couriers’ lives, newly appointed postmaster Hugh Finlay, a Scottish-born immigrant, ceased all in-land service in Canada.

By the mid-1780s, relative peace was restored and Finlay resumed as deputy postmaster general. What’s more, because the American Revolution brought an influx of Loyalist immigrants to Canada, there was an increased demand for improved postal services. Finlay eventually hired a courier to establish a route, which travelled through 1,000 kilometres of wilderness and required nearly four months to traverse both ways, from Quebec to Halifax.

About half a century later, in May 1841, official steamboat mail service between Montreal and Quebec was established. By 1850, steam service had all but overtaken sail service as the most widely used method of moving mail through Canada’s waterways.

A few years later the first mail cars were installed aboard trains, although this railway mail service would eventually be abandoned in 1971. By the end of the 1850s, these specially equipped cars – called railway post offices (RPOs) – had reduced the delivery time for a letter from Quebec to Windsor, Ont. from 10 days to about two days.

These RPOs – as well as the steam- and sailboats that preceded them – allowed more mail to be carried more quickly and over longer distances. What’s more, it allowed sorting to take place en route, diminishing further the amount of time required for delivery.

The Post Office Department (known as the Canada Post Corporation since 1981) was among the first federal departments established following Canadian Confederation in 1867. On April 1, 1868, the department had taken over the country’s postal service.


In 1918, the country’s first official airmail flight took place, although continuous airmail service wouldn’t be established for another decade. This historic flight saw Captain Brian Peck deliver 124 special envelopes from Montréal to Leaside Aerodrome in present-day Toronto.

Two weeks later, Katherine Stinson became Canada’s first female airmail pilot when she flew 259 letters from Calgary to Edmonton.

In 1948, Canada became the first country in the world to introduce domestic “all-up” airmail service, which carried first-class mail by air at regular postage rates.

The introduction of this all-up service – combined with newly paved roads, improved trucking services and a railway strike in 1950 – caused a rapid decline in RPOs.


Losier said Canada Post has the largest federal fleet in Canada with more than 12,500 vehicles consuming more than 24 million litres of fuel each year.

“We manage this fleet using a combination of in-house vehicle service depots as well as a number of outsourced maintenance facilities,” she said. “Given today’s realities, Canada Post has made considerable investments in researching and testing alternative technologies to reduce the environmental impact of our fleet.”

Some key initiatives include the continued introduction of light delivery vehicles; the continued use of alternative fuels and technologies (such as liquefied propane gas, compressed natural gas, gas/electric hybrids, full battery electric vehicles and zero-emissions vehicles); and participation with international postal administrations on benchmarking electric vehicle opportunities and other alternative fuels and technologies.

“Canada Post has tested a number of different fuel and propulsion technologies over the years. There’s quite a range of alternate fuel and propulsion technologies available today, and it’s difficult to say with any certainty if any, some or all of them have a place in the fleet without considerable investigation,” said Losier, who added Canada Post has travelled nearly 200 million kilometres (more than one astronomical unit) on alternate fuels and propulsion technologies since its earliest foray into their use.

“We still continue using a variety of these alternate fuels and propulsion platforms.

Today, almost 50 per cent of our fleet is comprised of Ford Transit Connects, which are more environmentally friendly when compared to our previous light vehicle fleet of cargo vans,” she said. “Two per cent of our fleet operates on alternate fuel and propulsion platforms such as propane powered; compressed natural gas powered; full battery electric vehicles; and hybrid electric vehicles.”

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