Commemorative envelopes through the years

By Jesse Robitaille

A smaller, more focused collecting area has been complementing Canada’s annual stamp program since 1976, when the Post Office Department issued a series of covers marking that year’s Montréal Olympics.

The Post Office Department and its post-1981 successor Canada Post have marked 126 themes on special event, custom and commemorative envelopes since the 1976 Olympic Games issue. Across those themes are 178 individual covers, including the latest – issued this June – marking the sesquicentennial of the Régiment Blinde du Canada.

“Since 1990, their frequency grew as their popularity mushroomed,” said collector and cataloguer Andrew Chung, who added these highly collectible envelopes differ from first-day covers (FDCs). “The challenge is forming a complete collection, including the 22 exclusive ones that were never placed on sale.”

Special event covers began in 1976 followed by custom envelopes in 1997-98 and then commemorative envelopes from 1999 to date. All of them commemorate or promote events of national or international significance, said Chung, who has catalogued all of Canada’s commemorative envelopes with Hank Narbonne in the New Specialized Catalogue of Canada Post Office First Day Covers, which illustrates each one.

The inaugural 1976 issue for the Montréal Olympics came that July and included five sets, each with five special event covers, highlighting team sports; tradition; combat and cycling; water and equestrian; and individual sports. A single cover marking the closing ceremony was also issued on Aug. 1 of that year.

“In 1976, for the Montréal Olympics, it wasn’t really a program yet,” said Jim Phillips, Canada Post’s director of stamp services since about 2004. “They were more of a one-off at that stage.”

After a five-year hiatus, the next special event cover – issued on Jan. 25, 1981 – marked that year’s Canadian Postal Users’ Conference (CPUC) in Toronto.

The Post Office Department and Canada Post issued several more covers using that loose format over the following three decades.

Including the CPUC issue, from 1981-84, the postal service issued 17 covers across seven themes; among these issues was one set – with 11 covers – marking Pope John Paul II’s 12-day papal visit to Canada in 1984.

Through 1994, the covers were sparsely issued; however, over the following decade, they came into their own as a “release valve” for the annual stamp program, Phillips said. Except for 2020, 2017 and 2015, at least two covers have been issued each year since 1994.

“They weren’t really a program until about 10 or 15 years ago,” said Phillips, who has worked for the Crown corporation since 1987, when he was hired as a researcher. “Since then, we’ve started to see a lot more of them, and they’re really a release valve for the stamp program – just like postal cards in the United States.”

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