Canada Post: A Contrived Controversy

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Canada Post – under various forms and identities – has served everyone from early British colonists to remote native communities to new immigrants over the course of its rich 200-plus year history.  It’s unfathomable to try and quantify all the enchanting stories stuffed into the billions of brown parcel papers and envelopes that have passed through the system over those centuries.  Sealed with melted wax, string and twine and modern adhesives, the contents of their shells set loose by eager hands breaking those delicate locks to pour over the contents of contracts, love letters and news.  For many years, these notes would deliver consequences that might pack more gravity on the personal lives of individual Canadians – and on the country as a whole – than any other means of communication.  Perhaps the irksome imagery of all the saliva of all the Canadian academics and celebrities that has been used to glue Canada Post stamps to various packets and envelopes brings it into focus best of all; for better or for worse, there is nary a figure of our modern history who has not been touched by our this champion of snail mail in all its grand, romantic tradition.  No wonder many of us are so panicked to see it begin to slip away, all in the name of corporate profits, dictated by CEOs who take in as much money a year as most Canada Post customers do in a decade.

Indeed, for all the recent contradictions offered on the stereotypical Canadian – for all our free trade-loving, American-corporate defending, patriotic, ostentatious, gloating, right-wing in-roads, and for all our Rob Fords – Canada still bests many senior countries in clinging to traditions and idiosyncratic institutions.  We’re still romantics, heedlessly susceptible to the well-packaged pleas of dexterous special interests that appeal to our emotional imbalances.  Ironic, then, that a giant of facilitating communications like Canada Post, also steeped in a protective coating of infallible heritage and national pride, lost widespread support earlier this month through poor communication and not – as most progressive soap-boxers would have you believe – arrogant policies.  When Canada Post announced it would axe urban home deliveries on December 11, 2013, the country was up-in-arms, but it was likely the mangled justifications and awkward timing that left a sour taste in our mouths.  Granted, the sheer negativity of it all does lend some credence to the conspiracy theory that Canada Post is being sabotaged from the inside out.  Indeed, if it was CEO Deepak Chopra’s aim to tarnish the brand through a sense of incompetence and instability, he could hardly have orchestrated a better announcement.  While Canadians have every right to distrust the current government’s bias towards privatization, and to be concerned about possible mismanagement of Canada Post as a public entity, that fear is being misdirected towards the highly visible – and not terribly devastating – shift away from urban direct-to-address delivery.

What was so bad about the messaging of the announcement?  For starters, it obviously came at a terrible time.  Thousands of employees are faced with greater perceived uncertainty during the most financially challenging season for families.  For the rest of us casual observers, bold management decisions based on recent revenue seem hasty on the cusp of the most profitable 3-week period of the year.  The sense of irony was exacerbated by reports of record parcel shipments just a week after the announcement (although to be fair, Canada Post has always maintained that increasing parcel revenue is simply not enough to compensate for suffering letter-post business).  Add to that the fact that Canada Post actually stayed comfortably in the black bedsheets in 2012, atop a 127 million dollar pillow of net profit before tax, and the conditions are ripe for confused tax-payer nit-picking.  The fact that the corporation’s revenue has been falling steadily was vocally presented with dire predictions of billion dollar losses within 10 years, but the objectivity of those numbers were called into question when the ‘independent’ study by the Conference Board of Canada that penned them was found to have close ties to none-other than CEO Chopra, known for his trepidatious, fiscally-conservative tactics.  Obscuring the potential subjectivity of this report hardly added credibility to Canada Post’s case.  Then there’s the fact that Chopra insisted Canadians were widely consulted on the issue, while only 46 unspecified communities were said to be involved in such discussions.

Besides the dubious PR and it’s arrogant underestimation of Canada’s protectionism for its beloved institutions, how bad can the changes really be for Canada and its postal workers?  Canada Post had the sensibility to clarify that most of the 6,000-8,000 jobs on the chopping block will be eliminated through attrition, not layoffs; that wouldn’t be possible without planning for cutbacks well in advance of projected losses.  The potential for greater decrease in services due to the added friction of traveling to neighbourhood outlets is legitimate, but should only effect 30% of customers since most Canadians already use community mailboxes.  Some have raised concerns about added emissions from additional travel, but to blame Canada Post for urban dwellers who use gas-guzzling vehicles for neighbourhood commutes hardly seems fair.  On the other hand, the efficiencies of a reduction in stops may actually decrease emissions from Canada Post.  It’s true that the eroded accessibility to mail for seniors and people with disabilities could have serious consequences for them; this is one legitimate concern for which Chopra’s dismissive response invites cynical scrutiny.  If this detail, for which several theoretical solutions could – and should – be implemented, were to derail the functionality of the proposed changes, it would indeed be a pitiful oversight.  As for the accusations that Canada Post is refusing potential for expanded business in other areas, the company will actually be opening more outlets and in-store kiosks with lower overhead and higher projected returns.

Most importantly, the cold reality of snail mail is that it truly is an outdated concept.  Just since 2008 – long after the dawn of the ‘internet age’ – ‘transactional mail’ (aka letters) have decreased more than 23%. This is what Canada Post is blaming for the expected financial loss in 2013.  Shelling out for stamps, paper, ink and envelopes and physically walking to mailboxes has collapsed under the convenience of sending contracts and letters worldwide, instantaneously, for free through computers.  This fact should not be remotely surprising to anyone who’s familiar with a couple little things called e-mail and instant messages.

In the age of smartphone, when Canadians can pay bills, transfer money overseas, check their bank accounts, phone and message groups and individuals, scan barcodes and digitally sign contracts from anywhere, at anytime, with no fees besides their monthly phone and electricity bills, there’s little room for the nostalgic values and aesthetic advantages of tactile delivery.  But instead of celebrating our ending dependence on environmentally wasteful materials and resources, our most ‘progressive’ thinkers continue to lament a decision that welcomes our technological reality.  Granted, our digital habits are not without serious environmental consequences themselves, not to mention social and cultural impacts, but the irrational thirst of many self-declared eco-conscious liberals to maintain archaic resource sinks while simultaneously embracing new ones is the epitome of hypocrisy.  And if there is still a place for snail mail, is it really on every single doorstep every single day?  Will we miss that privilege as much as we think?

As someone who loves typography, physical books and even collecting stamps, I will still gladly give up door-to-door delivery as an able bodied, internet-connected citizen if it saves energy and cash that should be spent on much more worthy programs.  I’m not alone.  Opposite the crowds of tradition-worshippers who consider Canada Post a vital artery for the lifeblood of our Northern lifestyle are crowds of tradition-worshippers who are happy for our distinct red mailboxes to exist as anachronistic fixtures of a static landscape.  Admittedly I was surprised when my girlfriend asked me how to address an envelope earlier this year; she didn’t know.  Hardly a poster-child of the tech-loving Gen-Y stereotype, she doesn’t have an MP3 player, watches television through a cable box and donated her rotary phone for me to use for my apartment buzzer.  I got her a new record player for Christmas.  She calls my iPhone an ‘iPod Phone’ and claims to hate all mobiles.  Yet, she has never sent a letter in her life, and really, why would she?  Everyone with access to a computer can accomplish every common transaction without paper.

For every vocal nay-sayer who swears that the demise of direct urban delivery will spell doom for Canada Post, I suspect there are many thousands of Canadian who don’t even know what’s being cut.  They don’t know, because they don’t care.  While I won’t defend apathy, many people of my generation genuinely have no stake in the announcement that’s dominated traditional media and discussion forums helmed by baby boomers for the past three weeks.  There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s simply a different reality, and undoubtedly the reality of our future.  Nevertheless, those who are effected could have – and should have – been given an opportunity to voice there concerns to Canada Post before the decisions were made, and not to the media after the press release was out.  And perhaps if Canada Post provided evidence of care and concern for the vocal hold-outs of the snail mail system, and engaged them in mapping out an alternative future, the impression left by the introduction of inevitable changes wouldn’t be negative.

Instead of announcing cuts as a flustered, reactionary resolution to an ‘external’ report with misleading origins on the cusp of the company’s busiest season, Canada Post could have presented delivery changes in the context of a larger progressive vision to transform the way we trade and communicate in 2014.  And instead of shooting down proposed changes to local delivery before the details have even been ironed out – changes that could actually improve efficiency and innovation – Canadians should be asking if Deepak Chopra has any such vision, and where the existing changes fit in.  Until those questions are answered, I personally refuse to dread nor criticize the changes, while neither can I lend unreserved support to Canada Post.  It’s understandable for Canadians to shoot the messenger, because the message itself is so horribly muddled.


Follow Joseph Boutilier on twitter: @josephboutilier


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