Postal Village reaching across the globe
We live in a global village, to borrow McLuhan’s expression. Communication is increasingly intrusive. The whole world’s business is become our own; it’s almost as if we lived next door to the monks of Tibet or the beleaguered inhabitants of war-torn Baghdad. Modern communication is far-reaching and complex, cutting across boundaries of space and time.
The post is the mother of global communication, in the modern sense. Until very recently it has been the primary means whereby the world’s populations have chosen to talk to one another. When did it all start? Should we talk about the year 1874 when 22 countries founded in Berne , Switzerland , the General Postal Union, which later became the Universal Postal Union, a clearing house for the international exchange of mail. Perhaps we could move back further in time, to the late 15 th century when, in the wake of Portugese expeditions to Africa and Columbus ‘ first voyage to Hispaniola , all the major continents of the world came into contact with one another, by accident, by design and for good.
Canada is a child of intercontinental intersections and migrations and has been since Samuel Champlain first set foot at Kebek, along the St. Lawrence, the 3rd of July 1608. Just as Europe pushed Champlain into North America so too did the natives and their furs, pull the French ever further inland now up the Outaouaois and across the French River-Nippising-Simcoe Lakes route to Georgian Bay and the rest of the Great Lakes beyond. La Verendrye expanded the realm to Lake Winnipeg and his men reached the foothills of the Rockies in 1742. A hybrid civilization, part native, part white, emerged during the following century. Métis hunters follow the bison on an east-west and north south trajectory, crossing the 49 th parallel at will.
Out on the west coast the British economy of furs and voyageurs spreads up and down the Columbia Valley . American colonizers move into the breach in the Spanish North West, north of Mexico . The Pacific, most notably China , tugged at the fledgling trading stations of Vancouver Island from the late 18 th century onward. Later gold-rushes in California , B.C. and Australia would propel prospectors and adventurers and mail across the Pacific, in both directions.
The Canadian colonies emerge as the offspring of world movements now disparate, now separate and dispersed and, beginning in 1867 jointed together, but still firmly engaged in the world, especially vis-à-vis the powerful neighbourhood to the south.
At each step in our history the mail has been a fact of life of paramount importance. Throughout the French regime there was no postal service but the mails did traverse the Atlantic . Letters travel this way and that across the continent aboard the canoes of voyageurs from trading posts in the western Cordillera, up and down the Saskatchewan River, from Fort Garry up the Rouge and eventually into Hudson Bay . The Atlantic is no impediment to the mails, rather it is a veritable boulevard sprinkled with major ports of call (Québec, St. John’s, Halifax, Louisbourg) serviced by vessels tasked to carry passengers, goods and mail from Europe to North America and cargo, commodities and the return mail in the opposite direction. Smaller ports of call and axes of post, communication and trade emerge: Charlottetown to Nova Scotia in the east (circa 1800), St. John to Québec and thence all the way toward the Great Lakes; Winnipeg to Pembina and eventually Minneapolis `, Fort McLeod to Ft. Benton ( Montana ) in the west.
The mail helped create the constituent colonial parts of Canada . It contributed to the making of a national integrated economy that bought goods from a catalogue and had its newspaper delivered to the mailbox upright along the range road. The mail bolstered the morale of troops serving in the trenches overseas in two world wars. It brought the bad news of men killed in action, back home. Mail also brought happy news, greetings from a luxary liner, from cottage country in the Laurentians up north or on Georgian Bay ; perhaps even a valentine or postcard from an admiring correspondent.
Letters were good test grounds for a novelist, eager to work out his narrative plot, or exchange techniques with fellow writers. Mail brings the bill, pays for the goods and carries the hockey sweater or the food parcel to its final destination. It reaches the old country overseas in Ukraine , carries on a conversation with family of Canadiens removed south of the border and conveys vital information for businessmen and labour unions alike
Mail is not merely synonymous with postal service, which provides for its delivery. It also includes messages: all the things we said or meant to say; all those little details hidden between the lines, behind the picture on the postcard, or beneath cupid’s barbs on the valentine. There is a piece of us, personally, culturally and socially in every letter. And if we could lay out each and every one of our cards and letters, one after the other like dominoes, surely the line would extend around the world; this shrinking world or global village, where messages sometimes travel faster than understanding but where nothing is lost if we just manage to keep in touch.
Dr. John Willis
Historian, Canadian Postal Museum-Canadian Museum of Civilization
The five figurines each representing a continent (North America, Europe, South America , Australia and Asia dance around the globe). Replica of original sculpture in Berne Switzlarnd commemorating the 25 th Annivesary of the Universal Postal Union. CPM 1974.1317.1 Photo by Claire Dufour