Winds of postal reform blowing harder than ever

Lately it seems that Canada Post is getting in the news for all the wrong reasons. The media has been filled with reports that Canada Post is asking Canadians to reconsider their decision not to receive junk mail, that ugly name the rest of us give to what the post office calls admail. Even worse, the media seems to finally have taken notice that post offices are being closed. That should not come as news to anyone in the stamp community, since it has been happening for years. But post offices are now being closed in major centres. Perhaps “closed” isn’t always the correct word, since in many cases customers are now being served through a revenue post office, most often located in a drugstore.

The truth is that post office closures are going to become more and more common. As a business, Canada Post has a huge problem: not only is it losing money, but its core business of delivering mail to Canadians is in decline. At the same time, the number of addresses to be served is on the increase. Faced with these problems, the corporation has few alternatives. It must cut costs, which means closing post offices and combining operations such as sorting into fewer facilities, and possibly reducing the level of service. At the same time it needs to look at growing whatever revenue it can, and that means admail and philatelic sales. In terms of admail, the corporation is obliged to honour “no junk mail” requests, which puts it at a disability compared with services such as free distribution newspapers, which simply deluge a neighbourhood.

The real challenge is that even closing offices, consolidating services, and chasing parcel delivery won’t stop the red ink. The corporation needs to be reinvented. The only other option, which is totally unacceptable, is to run postal services at a loss, and start paying millions out of the public purse to sustain a service that is systemically flawed. That’s not going to happen, so we are going to see changes. It will be the biggest and most dramatic change in postal service in our lives, but not the first time change of this magnitude has taken place. Way back in the early days of postal delivery, things were pretty ugly. Letters were usually sent collect, and the routes were cumbersome and complex.

Sending a letter cost more money, since the fee was calculated based on the weight of the letter, distance, destination, and the chosen route. Sending a letter along a road that involved a toll bridge cost more since the letter was expected to pay part of the toll. Even after all that was done, if the recipient decided not to accept delivery, the post got nothing whatsoever. As with today, the problem was pretty much universal among postal services around the world. A handful of visionaries, chief among them Rowland Hill, addressed these problems with a few innovations: uniform delivery rates, scheduled mail routes, prepayment of postage, and the adhesive postage stamp. I suspect that these innovations were seen as revolutionary to many people at that time. But worked they did. If Canada Post, and world posts in general, are going to survive another generation, then we need some of that vision again today.

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