Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
April 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


History of the Postal System of Canada


[This article was published in 1948; for the full citation, see the end of the document]

Post Office. During the French régime there was no postal service in Canada, except a system of official couriers, established in 1721, between Quebec and Montreal, whose chief duty was to carry government dispatches, but who carried also private letters. With the British conquest, however, Canada came under the British post-office, which had been established as early as the end of the seventeenth century, and which early extended its operations to the British colonies in North America. A post-office was established in Halifax in 1755, and postal communication was opened with both Boston and London ; and in 1763 post-offices were opened in Quebec, Three Rivers, and Montreal, with communication by means of courier between Montreal and New York. Later, when the thirteen colonies to the south had declared their independence, a deputy postmaster-general was appointed for the remaining British North American colonies, with headquarters in Quebec ; and the postal arrangements in British North America continued to be under his control, as a subordinate of the postmaster-general in Great Britain, until the middle of the nineteenth century.


This state of affairs gave rise to grave complaints. It meant that the people of British North America had no voice in the control of their own postal service. The deputy postmaster-general at Quebec was independent even of the governor-general of Canada ; and could alone decide where post offices were to be established. The years between 1783 and 1850 saw, it is true, a remarkable development of the post office in British North America. In 1788 communication was opened overland by courier between. Quebec and Halifax. In 1792 a postal convention was concluded with the United States, whereby the United States post-office engaged to act as the intermediary for the conveyance of mails between Canada and Great Britain. York (Toronto) had a postoffice as early as 1800; and between 1816 and 1827 the number of post-offices in Upper and Lower Canada increased from 19 to 114. These were mainly on a trunk line of communication between Halifax, Quebec, Montreal, York, and Amherstburgh, with routes branching off to such places as Sherbrooke, St. John's, Hull, Hawkesbury, Perth, and Richmond - over which couriers travelled at varying intervals. But many pioneer communities remained without a postal service. As late as 1835, for example, the settlers at Barrie, on lake Simcoe, had to travel forty miles to the nearest post-office, at Newmarket. The postal rates were, moreover, exorbitantly high. One hundred years ago it cost nine-pence to send a letter consisting of a single folded sheet of paper from Montreal to York (Toronto), and over four shillings from York to England, by way of Halifax. If there were more than one sheet of paper, the charge was four times as great. The charge on newspapers was four shillings a copy per annum; and it was one of the anomalies of those times that the revenue from newspapers went into the pocket of the deputy postmaster-general as a perquisite of his office.


Despite the discontent, however, it was not until the advent of responsible government that the control of the post-office in British North America was handed over to the governments of the British North American provinces in 1847-51. The result was a vindication of those who had advocated this reform. The number of post-offices underwent a rapid increase, so rapid that in Canada proper it was doubled in five years, trebled in ten, and quadrupled in fifteen; and at the same time the postal rates were reduced to one-third of what they had been, with the result that within ten years the revenue from this source was double what it had been in 1851. A feature of the lower rates was the introduction of the postage stamp. Hitherto letters had been paid for usually on delivery, with the result that letters carried long distances were sometimes refused. The postage stamp compelled people to pre-pay their letters, and thus proved more economical and business-like.


In 1867 the post-offices of the various provinces were taken over by the new Dominion government, and were placed under the charge of the postmaster-general of Canada, who was made a member of the Canadian government. Since then great advances have been made. The number of post-offices in Canada has grown to such an extent that there is now hardly a community of any size in Canada outside the Arctic circle that has not a post-office. The delivery of mail has been accelerated, first by the railway, secondly by the motor-car, and thirdly by the aeroplane., At the same time, the cost of postage has been reduced to a minimum. In 1878 Canada became a member of the Universal Postal Union, the object of which is to promote intercharge of correspondence among the nations of the world. In 1897 imperial penny postage (2 cents per half-ounce) was introduced; and while it has not been possible to maintain this rate, it has not since that time been greatly exceeded. About 1875 the post-card was introduced; and later a parcel post was inaugurated, so that Christmas presents, for example, could be sent by post instead of by express. Special rates have been established for books; and newspapers are now delivered by post at a fraction of their cost of delivery, since they are deemed to have an educational influence. Lastly, in 1908, a system of rural mail delivery was inaugurated. This has been developed until there are to-day about 250,000 rural mail boxes served by the post-office, and has proved a great boon to the Canadian farmer.


Since Confederation, the Canadian post-office has established a number of auxiliary services, such as the issuance of money orders and postal notes and the establishment of post-office savings banks; and these also have undergone a spectacular development.


While the post-office in Canada has never been a profit-producing department, it has, unlike many other public services, nearly always paid its way, and has remained an outstanding example of the success of public ownership of public utilities.


For the history of the post-office in British North America , see W. Smith, The history of the post office in British North America, 1639-1870 (Toronto and Cambridge, 1920). For current statistics in regard to the post-office, see the Canada Year Book.

Source : W. Stewart Wallace, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. V, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 401p., pp. 148-150.


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College