Mass Postal Service after 150 years: A Review Essay

Brian S. Osborne (Queen's University)

Robert M. Pike (Queen's University)

This year (1990), Britain will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the introduction of Penny Post. This is an anniversary that should also be of interest to Canadian historians and communications scholars. The establishment of a cheap, uniformly-priced letter service in Britain in 1840 was followed belatedly by the development of a similar service in the colonies of Canada East and Canada West in 1851. In 1867, with Confederation, the Canadian Post Office became a federal responsibility and was a major agency for facilitating social and economic development during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The crucial role of the Canadian Post Office in the transportation of personal and business communications, as well as the important economic role of its popular financial services such as savings banks and the money order system, have been explored elsewhere by the authors (1987). For most citizens, the letter was the only affordable way of communicating quickly over a distance until the telephone began to cut into the personal mail market during the 1920s. Even as late as the early 1960s, the Report of the Royal Commission on Government Organization (Glassco Commission, 1962, Vol. 3, p. 309) still stressed the importance of the Post Office and the dedication of its employees.

Going by the titles of two recent Canadian books on Canada Post, it seems that little good has happened to postal services since. David Stewart-Patterson is a journalist and senior parliamentary reporter. His book, Post Mortem--Why Canada's Mails Won't Move (1987), is a primarily anecdotal account of the people who have most directly influenced the modern Post Office in recent years "the ones who fed it, nursed it, cursed it, and, together helped it crumble"(Stewart-Patterson, 1987, p. x). By contrast, Lawrence Read is a retired academic with training both in economics and the philosophy of religion. His book, The Intelligent Citizen's Guide to the Postal Problem (1988), is a somewhat idiosyncratic attempt to apply his diverse disciplinary knowledge to studying the ills of Canada Post between 1965 and 1980. He describes the Post Office as a case study of industrial society in crisis, its problems symptomatic of wider social concerns. Not the least of these is referred to by Read as "the British disease": workers not anxious to work and managers afraid to manage. Some symptoms of this disease can be found in the third of the books reviewed here, Royal Mail: The Post Office Since 1840 (1985). In this officially commissioned account of the British Post Office between 1840 and its transformation to a Crown Corporation in 1969, historian M. J. Daunton notes that a "vicious circle of increasing postage rates, declining traffic, and deteriorating productivity..." (pp. 352-353) had characterized the postwar financial performance of the British postal services until the early 1980s.

Since Canadians tend to believe that their postal services are the worst in the world, it is comforting to learn from Daunton that the British also treat the criticism of their Post Office as a national pastime. The fact is, of course, that in many countries (including the United States) the public postal monopolies created during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have faced a rapidly changing social, economic and communications environment during the past 40 years. Many of the basic principles of political philosophy and practice which underlay their creation and traditional goals have been besieged and largely undermined during this period. Stewart-Patterson puts it nicely when he notes that, from country to country, " the eyes of postal customers, the reputation of modern postal systems is undone by a combination of two things: the legendary proportions of their past and the unalterable realities that rule their present" (p. 14).

Perhaps the main contribution of Daunton's book lies in a polite debunking of the legendary founder of the Penny Post, Rowland Hill, whose assured place in the pantheon of eminent Victorian radicals has relied much on the distortions of his own voluminous writings. Hill's economics were poor; his management skills were dreadful (Anthony Trollope who worked long for the Post Office was a strong anti-Hillite); and even his dedication to universal access to affordable postal services was undermined by his preoccupation with fiscal responsibility to the point of his questioning the public monopoly over letter service. However, as Daunton notes, this puts Hill at one with many modern critics of the Post Office in Britain and elsewhere; and indeed although public monopoly was long widely accepted as being in the public interest, this is one of those early principles which can no longer be taken for granted. Likewise, as Daunton observes, another crucial issue which has always faced the British Post Office has been, given a general acceptance of public enterprise, whether the role of a public business was to maximise its profit or to stress social benefit. Until the 1960s, this particular question when applied to the Canadian Post Office was generally resolved in favour of social benefit. Given the climatic and geographical problems of moving the mails in this country, this has actually meant the willingness of the federal government to cover large Post Office deficits throughout much of that organization's history.

However, the "unalterable realities of the present" which include a wide variety of alternative modes and carriers of distance communications, no longer favour a view that a huge financial deficit is acceptable in the name of social benefit. In Britain, Australia and ultimately Canada, the transfer of national Post Offices from direct government control to semi-independent Crown Corporations (and to a similar quasi-independent structure in the United States) has always been accompanied by a financial "break-even" mandate. One of the remarkable features of the Canadian case is that the transfer took so long, because a commercially-oriented Post Office in Crown Corporation form had been recommended by Kates, Peat and Marwick in a consultancy report as far back as 1969. In Stewart-Patterson's phrase, "years of dithering" intervened before Prime Minister Trudeau--fed up with continued industrial unrest--finally announced, in 1978, that the Post Office would be transformed into a Crown Corporation.

If Trudeau was finally fed up with Post Office affairs, so, it appears, were all other involved parties. Both Stewart Patterson's and Read's accounts of the Department's activities during the 1960s and 1970s are a litany of low productivity, low morale, and alienation amongst executive, management and workers alike. At the top, the office of Postmaster General was a revolving door, with incumbent following incumbent in rapid succession. Most appointed ministers had no time to implement significant policy changes (Eric Kierans who held the post from 1968-70 stands out as a dynamic, if frequently frustrated, exception) since they spent most of their time being initiated into the job by a reluctant and disaffected management. In turn, disaffected management faced a body of notoriously hostile and still more disaffected workers as reflected particularly in the collective attitudes of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, then the union representing only the inside workers. The resultant poisonous labour relations, with postal strikes seemingly as common as normal service, helped mould the intractably negative public image of the Post Office. In Read's view, the postal scene in Canada was sufficiently bad to constitute a case study of industrial society facing three crises--one economic, one spiritual, and one ideological.

In the light of these composite problems, there is a temptation to seek out the villain of the piece. Our own historical research on newspaper treatment of the Post Office suggests that the press has tended to find it in organized labour, although the perceived incompetencies of postal management have come in for considerable criticism too. It is to his credit, therefore, that Stewart-Patterson offers no "diatribe against any one individual or group," although Read's chapters devoted to the impact of the "Marxian ethic" and the "Quebecois ethic" on postal affairs do place much responsibility for labour-management disruptions upon the presumed role of Marxist ideology within CUPW. This emphasis is somewhat irresponsible, both because it is unproven and because, as Read argues the case, it is self-contradictory. Thus, as Stewart-Patterson notes, an American doctoral study of the flood of grievances amongst Canadian postal workers in the late 1970s found no political or radical left wing ideology exerting influence at CUPW, either amongst the leaders or the rank-and-file. The problem was probably rather one of boredom and alienation in a new generation of postal workers. But contrast this conclusion with Read's categorical statement that "the direct impact of Marxism on events in Canada Post is, of course, that initiated by committed Marxist postal employees" (p. 111). The contradiction comes in later when he notes that CUPW action between 1974-81:

corresponded in very important respects with Marxist theory and what they did corresponded in very important respects with Marxist practice. We do not contend that CUPW leaders at this period necessarily understood themselves to be Marxists; however, what we do contend is that the thrust of CUPW during this period was essentially Marxist whether or not they would have chosen to apply this term to themselves. (p. 130)

According to Read, therefore, to be a committed Marxist at CUPW, one did not presumably have to consider oneself a Marxist--a very strange definition of ideological commitment. Unfortunately, however, such inconsistency of argument is typical of the uneven quality of Read's book. Thus, his account of the turbulent impact on postal affairs of competing ideological groups in Quebec is an interesting, if controversial, contribution to understanding the history of the Post Office. On the other side, a chapter devoted to the analysis of declining productivity at Canada Post after 1964 is so suffocated by 16 tables, and a list of propositions about the economic linkages between the Post Office and the Canadian economy, as to be almost unreadable.

Read terminates his main analysis of the Post Office with its transformation into a Crown Corporation, but offers some suggestions for reforming the present administrative structure. So does Stewart-Patterson. In both cases, however, the speed of events threatens to outrun their proposals. We have noted that the traditional view of the Post Office as providing an essential social service, even at the cost of running up large deficits, was no longer acceptable by the 1980s. The Canada Post Corporation Act of 1980, therefore, imposed a mandate on the Post Office to operate on a "self-sustaining financial basis," but the meaning of that term was not defined. Some parties, therefore, interpreted "self-sustaining" to mean that Canada Post should recover all the costs of its operation and break even financially; and indeed, such a break-even was surpassed and a profit recorded in 1988-89. Subsequently, in its April 1989 budget, the government directed Canada Post to adopt a target rate of return on equity by 1993-94 which would be appropriate for a company of similar size and comparable objectives operating in the private sector. According to the latest report of the Postal Services Review Committee, Canada Post has already "... evolved into a commercially oriented and profit-conscious company" (1989, p. 18).

Canada Post is, therefore, now being subjected to privatization in the sense that it is expected to function in accordance with the financial tenets of private enterprise. Most of us are well aware of the economy measures. Many of them challenge the social benefit ethic that has characterized a century of operation: closures of small rural post offices, the establishment of community "superboxes" in new suburbs, the growth of retail postal outlets; and the rising consumer costs of mail. On the positive side, however, reliability and speed of mail delivery (where still delivered!) has improved substantially, so that Stewart-Patterson's designation of Canada Post as "the Crown Corpse" seems to nail down the corporate coffin prematurely. To be fair though, this is an example of Stewart-Patterson's journalese rather than his committed view of the Post Office. He is not one of those who believes that the only hope is radical privatization--the closing of the Post Office as a Crown Corporation, and turning over its responsibilities to the private sector. Here he differs from the recent report of the conservative dominated federal Standing Committee on Consumer and Corporate Affairs and Government Operations. This report has called for Canada Post to discontinue its retail postal business entirely and concentrate on the collection, processing and delivery of mail. This recommendation is, however, only a precursor to radical privatization: ultimately, as the Committee also urges, the Government should "privatize Canada Post once adequate performance, comparable to private-sector levels, has been attained and once the industrial relations climate has been improved" (May 1990, p. 58).

Here we have come full-circle. The establishment of public postal monopolies over mail delivery in the nineteenth century was intended to ensure reasonable equality of access to service at a uniform price to people living in cities and remote rural areas alike. A century and a half ago, Rowland Hill saw little virtue in this monopoly which precluded "wholesome competition" (his words) from private carriers. However, he was forced to admit that it would be harsh for the Post Office to provide a service in remote areas of the country and at the same time "to be exposed to competition in that more profitable part of its business, which alone rival establishments would undertake" (Daunton, 1985, p. 50). Contemporary exponents of privatization expound its benefits in the form of the economies of competition, decreased bureaucracy and a more motivated labour force. Yet, ironically, the Standing Committee recommends that, subject to third-party regulation, a privatized Canada Post's exclusive privilege over first-class mail should be retained in order to prevent the erosion of rural mail service (Canada, 1990, p. 60). Canada Post would, therefore, become the Bell Canada of the postal business: a regulated private monopoly which could make lots of money for its shareholders whilst acting in the public interest.

The Standing Committee's recommendations indicate the constant tension which exists within postal systems between their public welfare role and their potential viability as profitable commercial enterprises. For his part, Stewart-Patterson would relieve this tension less radically by keeping a public Canada Post but making the only restriction on private competition a requirement that all private couriers carry the appropriate amount of stamps on their letters in addition to their own charges. Thus, the couriers would pay extra for the benefit of creaming off much of the lucrative urban market. But Canada Post's revenues--and hence, presumably its ability to service less profitable areas and to give generous payments to redundant employees--would be maintained. Likewise, Read would also retain Canada Post but only as the overall planner and coordinator of small, independent co-operative enterprises established in each locality to collect, sort and deliver mail. These enterprises would employ substantial numbers of erstwhile employees of Canada Post, now far more motivated by their smaller scale and humane working conditions. Both of these suggestions have merit--indeed more merit than the odd compromise proposed by the Standing Committee--but only if one believes that "the commercially-oriented and profit-conscious organisation" referred to by the Postal Services Review Committee is still in need of major reform. We are not convinced that drastic reform is necessary, and, for this reason, would favour no major change in Canada Post's current status without a thorough investigation of its social and economic role in Canadian society.

In conclusion, we regard such an investigation as essential in the light of our firmly-held conviction that the modern state must ensure the provision of communication to all regions and social elements of the nation. In particular, to delegate postal services to private sector actors, even with an element of central regulation, is to pay scant attention to the historical role played by the federal Post Office in the process of social and regional integration which has helped to underpin the fragile unity of the Canadian polity. At present, as indeed we argued in our presentation to the Standing Committee on Consumer and Corporate Affairs (Osborne and Pike, November 1989), the greatest danger for the Post Office is a belief that privatization of public enterprise is good in itself, irrespective of its actual benefits. Thus, before further privatization of the Post Office takes place, two fundamental questions are in order: does more privatization result in greater efficiencies for the consumer? and does it better serve the public interest in the long-term? Answers to these questions, uninfluenced by prior ideological commitments, might lead to continued privatization. Alternatively, they might also strengthen Canada Post's traditional public credo of "Serviro Populo"--to serve the people.


Books Reviewed

Daunton, M. J. (1985). Royal mail: The Post Office since 1840. London: The Athlone Press.

Stewart-Patterson, David. (1987). Post mortem: Why Canada's mail won't move. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada.

Read, Lawrence M. (1988). The intelligent citizen's guide to the postal problem. Ottawa: Carleton University Press.

Other Citations

Canada. (1990, April). Moving the mail: Canada's postal service in the 1990's. (Report of the Standing Committee on Consumer and Corporate Affairs and Government Operations). Ottawa: Queen's Printer.

Canada. (1962). Report of the Royal Commission on Government Organization. Ottawa: Queen's Printer.

Osborne, B. S., & Pike, R. M. (1987). From "A cornerstone of Canada's social structure" to "financial self-sufficiency": The transformation of the Canadian postal service, 1852-1987. Canadian Journal of Communication, 13(1), 1-26.

Osborne, B. S., & Pike, R. M. (1989, November 11). A Canadian postal service for the twenty-first century: A brief to the Standing Committee on Consumer and Corporate Affairs and Government Operations.

Postal Services Review Committee. (1989, November). Recommendations to Canada Post Corporation regarding its proposed January 1990 change to regulations. Ottawa.

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