Privatization again threatens Canada's rural post offices | National Union of Public and General Employees

Privatization again threatens Canada's rural post offices

Canada Post review awakens old fears in hundreds of small rural communities.

Ottawa (22 May 2005) - Twenty years ago the Mulroney Tories tried to close down all of the rural post offices across Canada. 

They failed, thanks to mass rural resistance organized by groups like the Canadian Postmasters and Assistants Association (CPAA), Rural Dignity of Canada and the National Farmers Union and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW).

Posh Canada Post headquarters built by Mulroney Tories

Instead of shutting down Canada's entire network of 5,221 rural postal outlets, the closures were restricted to about 1,500 before the Tories were mercifully booted from office and a moratorium was imposed by David Dingwall, the postmaster-general appointed by Jean Chretien.

Officially, the moratorium still remains in effect but in practice it is no longer being enforced and closures are again beginning to happen one rural post office at a time.
 
Canada Post has placed several classes of rural outlets under "review" with a view to phasing them out through "attrition." However, the corporation refuses (in its usual secretive way) to say exactly what it means and to be frank with rural Canadians about its plans for their communities.

The concern is real. The CPAA has crunched numbers across the country and identified 750 offices that are threatened as a result of the ongoing review (See full list below).

Depressingly familiar fight

It's a depressing list to read and a depressing turn of events for anyone who cares about rural life and the role that small post offices have played in the history and ongoing daily life of rural Canadians.

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) supports the CPAA and other groups being called upon once again to fight for rural postal survival.

"In a very real sense, these small and far-flung communities hold Canada together and make our country great," says NUPGE president James Clancy. "Keeping rural post offices open is essential to our well-being as a nation."

Rural post offices remain the heart of thousands of small communities. They continue to function as vital meeting, resource and information centres, even with the rise of the Internet and the advent of instant global communications.

They also give the federal government a tangible presence in the remotest corners of Canada. Yet even the Liberals, who like to portray themselves as synonymous with national unity, seem to be losing their zest for rural communities and falling prey to the corporate call of privatization.

The Mulroneyites

The Mulroneyites were the first Canadian politicians to experiment seriously with the notion that representatives elected by the people could sell off public property at fire sale rates to private corporations and get away with it. The trick was to bamboozle voters by promising a bottom-line bonus of greater "efficiency" through "private" management.

It didn't matter that the promise was almost always hollow, costing taxpayers far more in the long run than any savings up front. They were often able to pull it off, and Canada Post was one of the first laboratories where damaging national privatization experiments were carried out.

One notorious example was the Canada Post headquarters in Ottawa, a palatial tower built at enormous expense by the Mulroneyites for postal executives at the very time they were telling rural communities no money was available to keep their postal outlets open.

Such was Conservative arrogance that Canada Post signed a 99-year private sector lease on the complex — a deal that, had it stood, would have forced the public to pay the full cost of the project many times over through nearly a century of lease payments.

The contract was so outrageous that the Liberals quietly renegotiated it (again at who knows how much expense) when they replaced the Tories in office.

Andre and Lander

The original drive to dump rural post offices was led by Harvie Andre, a union-hating Alberta MP who served as Mulroney's postmaster-general, and Donald Lander, a pliant former auto executive who, as Canada Post president, was only too happy to do the Tories' corporate bidding.

The Mulroney vision for rural post offices was to pull down the Canadian flag, sell off the buildings and convert outlets to minimum-wage stamp counters run by local merchants at country stores, gas stations and grain elevators.

That Andre and Lander managed to close 1,500 outlets before the Tories were scorched to an historic low of two seats in the 1993 election was a testament to their conceit in the face of mass opposition. So despised were the Tories when they left office that a post-election lapel button lamented, "Two seats is too many."

While in office, Andre and Lander also provoked a series of brutally expensive strikes for no better reason than to show how "tough" they could be with postal unions. The strikes could easily have been avoided and settlements negotiated at far less cost, with the savings used to keep rural post offices open. But the Tories wanted a showdown and they got it.

Andre and Lander spent like drunken sailors on a pointless war with postal workers. Countless millions were wasted hiring hapless scabs, who failed to deliver the mail, and contracting private security outfits to harass legal strikers.

Ideology and servility

In retrospect, given Andre's ideology and Lander's servility, it's a tribute to the tenacious fight waged by rural Canadians (and their supporters, especially Rural Dignity of Canada) that only 1,500 offices were closed.

In one much-publicized incident, protesters ringed Canada Post's shiny new Taj Mahal in Ottawa with what was billed as the longest protest banner in the world  — a ribbon inscribed with the names of rural postal outlets across the country. It stretched for blocks.

In another, demonstrators converged at Rideau Hall in Ottawa to protest one of the final and most obscene gestures by the Tories to rural Canadians  — the appointment of Donald Lander to the Order of Canada.

It was the first protest of its kind ever staged at the Governor General's residence, one that prompted the great Lander (who had a reputation for throwing ashtrays in fits of temper) to sneak ignominiously into Rideau Hall for the black-tie ceremony where he collected his tainted award.

Rural postal closures were a major issue in the 1993 election campaign. The Liberal moratorium was imposed the following year. After that, the Chretien government authorized a wholesale review of Canada Post's mandate.

The 1996 review

The review produced a significant report in 1996 that contained a wide-ranging series of proposals covering all aspects of postal service, including the role of rural post offices. Among the recommendations it made were the following:

  • Canada Post should restore "the Canadian insignia (the Canadian wordmark) to all its vehicles, signs, advertisements and all other places where it's corporate identity is expressed."
  • The agency should "improve rather than reduce" service in rural areas, including setting "reasonable delivery standards for rural areas."
  • The government should give priority to maximizing Canada Post as a federal presence and use it "where appropriate" to deliver federal services, "particularly in rural and remote areas."

Cracks in the Liberal moratorium did not begin to appear seriously until the third term of the Chretien government.

One notable example was a letter sent by then Canada Post president Andre Ouellet (since fired) to the CPAA in December 2002. The tone was telling, signalling that change was in the wind.

"Many of our rural post offices do not generate sufficient revenues to be self-sustaining," Ouellet warned. "There are limits to the funds we can provide to maintain small rural offices."

His letter sent such a chill through rural Canada that John Manley, then the minister in charge of crown corporations, was prompted to reassure the House of Commons that the moratorium had not been lifted and was still in effect.

However, the will to enforce it has clearly been ebbing. Instead of defending rural post offices, Canada Post now puts out statements saying it has no plans to "massively close post offices"  — language that could mean almost anything and sounds a lot like the Tories of old.

New CPAA campaign

The CPAA has now embarked on a new national campaign to save rural post offices.

"Postal service for all Canadians is a right not a privilege," says CPAA president Leslie Schous. "Over 600 rural communities in Canada have no counter postal service. Rural Canadians deserve better."

Information kits and petitions are being distributed across the country by the CPAA. Rural newspapers are being contacted. MPs and legislature members are being lobbied and local councils are being contacted to join the fight once again.

One of the most effective documents the CPAA has compiled is the list of 750 "Groups 1, 2 & 3" post offices that Canada Post has acknowledged are under review and may be subject to closure.

There were predictable howls of denial from the corporation's army of public relations officers (Canada Post has never skimped on corporate propaganda) when the CPAA list was released. But if the past is any guide, the denials are suspect.

The only brake that has ever slowed Canada Post, since it became a Crown corporation in 1981, is political pressure. Only when the heat gets great enough do the politicians finally rein the corporation in — which is why rural Canadians are again fighting to save their post offices.

NUPGE

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE