“Please wait a minute Mr. Postman”

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of her move to this Province, a friend of mine recently mailed out postcards from her extensive personal collection to all her friends. Each of the thoughtfully selected postcards contained a brief narrative about one of her many experiences over the past 25 years. It was a delight to receive such a personal memento in the mail.

Postcard from my friend along with a flyer (what I usually receive in the mail) arrived in my mailbox recently. Photo: C. Hagemoen

Postcard from my friend along with a flyer (what I usually receive in the mail) arrived in my mailbox recently. Photo: C. Hagemoen

Analogue experiences like this are far and few between these days thanks to the internet. There is no doubt that everyone loves to receive a handwritten card, however very few people actually take the time to write one these days. Since the advent of email, texting, twitter, Facebook and other digital technology there really isn’t a need, nor desire, to write and send letters (or cards) via snail mail. Even etiquette traditionalists, bowing to the new technology, agree that email is an acceptable way to deliver an invitation, thank-you note or business letter.

What does this all mean? It means the end of the conventional post office and mail delivery as we know it. I’m afraid that door-to-door mail delivery is going the way of the rotary dial landline telephone (remember those?) and I think that is a real shame.

Illuminated letter drop at the main Vancouver Postal station. Photo: C. Hagemoen

Illuminated letter drop at the main Vancouver Postal station. Photo: C. Hagemoen

It’s a shame because it’s not just about the lost art of letter writing and receiving hand written items in the mail. It’s a shame because it’s also about losing the tradition of having your mail delivered personally to your door by another human being.

There was a time when the postman was just one of the many people in your neighbourhood; a person that you met each day.  If you lived in the Broadway and Granville area of Fairview in the mid 1960s you might have met the postman featured in this CBUT documentary. Produced in 1964 for the ‘7 O’Clock Show’, this CBUT (CBC Vancouver) documentary follows a postman through a working day as he delivers mail on his route (South Granville/Fairview).  He starts off in the Postal Outlet at 1535 West Broadway and before walking his route, has a coffee break in a nearby cafe. In voice-over, the unnamed postman discusses the details and merits of his job.

▶ A Day in the Life of a Postman, B&W, 1964 – YouTube.

 

Almost two years ago Canada Post announced that it will phase-out home delivery while at the same time substantially increasing postal rates. Most Canadians will now get their mail delivered to community mailboxes (don’t even get me started on those!).  Less service and higher costs; even a business amateur like me knows that is a losing business strategy.

The door handles at the Vancouver Canada Post building. Photo: C. Hagemoen

The door handles at the Vancouver Canada Post building. Photo: C. Hagemoen

At one point in its history, Canada Post’s motto was “servire populo” or, “to serve the people”. With these recent changes it seems like Canada Post is no longer interested in  serving the people of Canada. Today, their corporate values include phrases like “we value innovation in the marketplace” and “integrity and respect in our actions”. Ugh. Vague phrases like that sound somewhat insincere and are rather uninspiring.

Once a strong and powerful national institution, Canada Post is now becoming a shadow of its former self. The problem? Expenses are rising while use plummets, all thanks to the internet. The Globe and Mail’s Barrie McKenna believes that this diminished version of Canada Post “will inevitably be less relevant to Canadian businesses and individuals”.

In his article, McKenna suggests that “a shrunken Canada Post may be exactly what the federal government wants”. A scenario reminiscent of the situation facing another one of Canada’s Crown Corporation’s, the CBC, also a mere shadow of its former self.

“Ottawa rejected possible reform paths favoured by other national postal systems: British-style privatization or a move into financial services, as the United States is pondering. [In many countries around the globe] financial services have become an economic salvation for any postal services facing challenges similar to Canada Post’s”

It seems that the Board of Directors (and ultimately the Federal Government) chose to ignore these creative solutions, potentially saving and cultivating Canada Post, in favour of cutting service, jobs and increasing prices.

Canada Post display at the PNE, 1971. Photo: COV Archives - CVA180-6831

Canada Post display at the PNE, 1971. Notice in the photo the Canada Post crest that reads : “servire populo” or “to serve the people”. Photo: COV Archives – CVA180-6831

Wanting to keep this public service (door-to-door mail delivery) is not just about resisting change either. It is about providing a secure service to all Canadians (young, old, rich, poor, urban and rural).

Community mailboxes are out in the open and vulnerable to tampering. If you were a senior (or anyone) with limited mobility, would you want to leave the safety of your home to pick up your government pension cheque or new credit card at a community mailbox? I know I wouldn’t. Would you even want one of these community mailboxes sitting in front of your house?

And, as hard as it may be for some digital natives to believe, not all Canadians have gone digital and use the internet. Some are overwhelmed by its complexities (I wouldn’t even call these people digital immigrants, as they never left their analogue homeland) and many simply cannot afford it. As more and more businesses and government offices turn to web-based services, the greater the digital divide becomes.

Lastly, some people rely on the Post Office not only to deliver their mail; they rely on the letter carriers for guaranteed human contact once a day. This aspect of the situation should not be underestimated.

Ostalgie, a hybrid of the German words for east and nostalgia, is the German term for the phenomenon of nostalgia that some Germans had for the former East Germany. With the loss of door-to-door postal service and a diminished Canada Post will Canadians soon suffer from Postalgie? Nostalgia for the old postal system?

Main Post Office Vancouver, 1965. Photo: Alvin Armstrong, CBC Vancouver Still Photo Collection.

Main Post Office Vancouver, 1965. Photo: Alvin Armstrong, CBC Vancouver Still Photo Collection.

And to add insult to injury, we are losing the iconic Post Office building in downtown Vancouver. Like another of Canada’s crown corporations, the CBC, Canada Post is looking to reduce its debt load through the sale of some of its real estate assets. The downtown Vancouver Post Office building was sold in 2013 when Canada Post relocated its processing facility to a plant near the Vancouver International Airport.

Opened in the heart of downtown Vancouver in 1958, this monolith of a building takes up one entire city block (between Georgia, Dunsmuir, Homer and Hamilton streets) and has a total floor area of almost 16 acres (686,000 sq ft). The building is the finest example of International Style architecture in the city. Heritage Vancouver included the Post Office on its annual list of Top Ten Endangered Sites in 2012 and 2013. Its ultimate fate is still unknown at this time. According to the folks at Heritage Vancouver, the Main Post Office building was ineligible for the protection of municipal heritage designation, as municipal bylaws have no legal standing for properties owned by a higher level of government. The fact that Canada Post is a crown corporation and not a federal department also works against the fate of the building, as there is no obligation for crown corporations to participate in federal heritage programs.

A recent article in the Vancouver Sun (May 8, 2015) states that the new owners have submitted a development inquiry to the City of Vancouver “that contemplates reusing the post office building, while adding additional office and residential space above”. What this means exactly is unknown, but without official heritage designation I’m afraid this will likely be another case of architectural taxidermy. Since the Canada Post building is “built like a tank” perhaps by brute force alone it will be preserved. We will have to wait and see.

Vintage Vancouver postcard ca. 1938.

Vintage Vancouver postcard ca. 1938. Send someone a postcard today.

Inspired by my friend’s recent postal actions, I think it’s time to bring back the post card in a big way. It’s short and sweet and even has a cool picture on it – what more do you need? Make someone’s day, send them a postcard! It is a small gesture, but in these days of globalization, it is the little things that sometimes convey the most.

 

Fun Fact: In 1964 Canada’s only (non-wartime*) female letter carrier, Norah Stackard, is fired after one and a half days on the job because of her gender. A spokesperson for the Postmaster General says that the job will be reserved for men until the Civil Service Commission and the post office finishes studying the feasibility of employing women letter carriers. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that women began to be regularly hired as posties.

*Women worked as letter carriers during the First World War (1914-1918) and the Second World War (1940-1945) after each war they were fired to make room for the male soldiers returning from war.

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2 thoughts on ““Please wait a minute Mr. Postman”

  1. I have a collection of ancient post cards that belonged to a great aunt/uncle or grandmother/father. Lots from back east. Any idea what I can do with them? Maybe donate them somewhere?

    • Hmmm, that’s a hard one. Since they sound like they are mainly from back east (subject matter wise) there probably won’t be much interest for a local archive to take them. If they are interesting aesthetically or graphically perhaps an art college might be interested. Or perhaps you could use them in an artistic manner and frame them up as art (t least some of them). The other option is to sell them on ebay or some other venue, if you don’t want them, perhaps someone else will? Or you could start using them as cards and send them off yourself!

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