From time to time, it seems that language gets in the way of effective communication. Specifically I am talking about the words philately and philatelic. They are words that we use in every issue of Canadian Stamp News, and I probably encounter them several times a week in the course of my reading life, yet I really suspect that it means different things to different people within the stamp-collecting community. To me, the big difference is that philately is the study of stamps, whereas collecting involves the accumulation of stamps. In other words, you don’t have to buy stamps to study stamps. Not only that, but philately can also involve the study of postal history, a huge field on its own. That study itself is incredibly diverse. One area that it can cover in detail is the opening and closing of post offices.
Now post office closures are nothing new; what is new is that the number of post offices being closed in recent years is unprecedented. Another new development is that we are seeing more urban post offices being closed. In the past it was usually just small rural sites that vanished quietly into the night. Now “closed” may not be the precise word that fits the official story. In many cases what we are seeing is less a closure of a post office than a conversion. We lose a traditional standalone post office with dedicated postal staff, and instead are told we can be served by a post office located within a nearby drugstore. Now I’m not opposed to the idea of combining post office duties with a local business. In some cases, that is the most efficient way to provide local service. I have been to plenty of small towns where a local general store also serves as a post office. In these tiny communities, that is the only way locals can get their mail without driving 20 or 30 kilometres to a larger centre.
However, when a successful post office that serves a large number of people is closed and replaced with a back corner of a drugstore, that isn’t converting from one type of post office to another, it is a definite and permanent reduction in service. It is also a definite and permanent reduction in cost for Canada Post. It is no secret that the corporation’s biggest single budget item is paying for its staff and their gold-plated benefit packages. Chief among these is an indexed pension, with Canada Post picking up the deficit. That deficit is huge, since Canada Post has lots of employees on the retired list. What’s more, thanks to modern medicine, these people are drawing pension money out for more years than ever before. However, closing a post office today does not mean a dramatic impact on the cost of servicing the pension plan in the short term.
It does result in some reduced costs up front, and it does eliminate a future liability. At the same time we are seeing a restructuring of distribution as the process of sorting and handling mail is being streamlined. Smaller sorting centres are being closed and the work is being moved to larger, more efficient centres. This is the downside of Canada Post’s restructuring that we have been hearing about for years. The corporation is saddled with old buildings, huge staff costs, and while the number of customers keeps going up, along with the obligation to serve them, the number of first-class letters keeps dropping. Closures, or conversions to revenue post offices if you prefer, make some sense from a business perspective. The problem is that they also accelerate any alienation between Canada Post and its customers by turning the corporation in a sort of wholesaler of mail services, which are a sideline for retailers who are more interested in selling cosmetics than stamps.