Officially inaugurated on 10 October 1908 with the first delivery of mail between Ancaster and Hamilton in Wentworth County, Ontario, free rural mail delivery in Canada was the product of lengthy negotiations between representatives of rural populations arguing for its establishment and the government officials who held the decision-making power.
The peoples representative who was best known for his commitment to this cause was George Wilcox. In 1900, Wilcox had his first experience of the benefits of free mail delivery on the occasion of a visit to his son in Michigan, U.S. Known as "rural free delivery," it had been in existence in the United States since 1896.
Back in Canada, Wilcox was quick to let his fellow citizens know about the advantages of the American service and to call for an equivalent service from the government authorities. In 1905, for the first time, he published in the Woodstock Sentinel-Review an initial letter that was reprinted in many of the countrys newspapers and magazines. In it he made various arguments for the introduction of free rural mail delivery in Canada. He cited the example of Michigan and its flourishing prosperity. He outlined the economic impacts of the establishment of such services throughout the United States and in Great Britain. He also mentioned the distances that rural dwellers had to travel to retrieve their mail at the post office. Farmers, he said, were very busy people who should have the benefit of home mail delivery just like city people, who had had free mail delivery since 1874. He argued that rural dwellers were taxpayers just like city dwellers, and should be able to enjoy the same services. He closed by raising the point that this type of service would help break the isolation of certain rural communities.
Wilcox found himself criticized by many newspaper publishers who responded that the American delivery service was faced with a substantial deficit. He replied by proposing that surpluses generated by the Post Office department be reinvested in a free delivery system. Wilcox disseminated his message not only in the press but also in representations to the Post Office department and, more broadly, to all politicians, both in the government and in the opposition.
In 1901, the Post Office department initiated feasibility studies on the issue. George Ross, Assistant Postmaster in Toronto, was accordingly sent to the United States (to Washington and Maryland) as the Post Office departments representative to study the American distribution service. In his report, Ross declared himself in favour of introducing this type of service in Canada. Despite this favourable report, in 1903, William Mulock, then Postmaster General, asked for a more thorough examination of the American system.
Mulock was afraid that the very broad dispersal of the rural population in Canada might result in excessively high costs to the department. In 1904, he estimated the costs of such a delivery service at $25 million. The following year he repeated his disagreement, citing the financial problems that this free delivery service had caused in the United States, as evidenced in a report on the American system produced by his department. In fact, the report concluded that its only advantage was the daily distribution of the newspaper. Furthermore, in this report, George Ross, who had become Chief Post Office Superintendent in 1905, now withdrew his support for the Canadian rural mail delivery project.
Through the course of 1907, the project underwent numerous reversals, mainly on account of the general elections planned for 1908. Political parties gradually came out in favour of setting up a free rural mail delivery service so as to win electoral support. As a result, in 1907, Wilcox proposed to MPs that the service be tested in the most populous rural communities of Canada, but the Postmaster General objected to the idea.
George Ross was also still against the idea. He was afraid that introducing such a service would have a negative effect on business in rural areas. He feared that many country dwellers would discontinue their routine visits to the post office to sell their goods and make their purchases in the village, and that this interruption would damage the economic development of small communities in a phase of commercial expansion. Ross did, however, propose a compromise of installing letterboxes along existing postal routes.
Wilcox then turned to Sir Robert Laird Borden, Leader of the Conservative Opposition, who in anticipation of the election had made the introduction of free rural mail delivery one of his election promises, subject, however, to an adequate examination of the costs involved.
In that same year of 1907, the press rallied to Wilcoxs cause. It characterized the governments attitude as discriminatory, going so far as to claim that the farmer deprived of a service available to the urban population was relegated to the rank of second-class citizen. Of course, the press had a vested interest in the expansion of the free delivery areas, since, with a rural service in operation, it would have direct daily contact with a larger number of readers.
Finally, in 1908, Wilcox succeeded in winning over the Postmaster General. In May, Postmaster General Rodolphe Lemieux came out in favour of the principle of free rural mail delivery, though he did not see the benefit of introducing it immediately. Then, on 27 August, with the upcoming elections as an incentive, he announced his firm intention to install letterboxes at the doors of rural houses so that they might benefit from daily mail distribution.
Wilcox also sought the support of the Prime Minister of Canada, Sir Wilfrid Laurier. At a meeting on 15 September in Niagara Falls, Ontario, attended by Wilcox at the invitation of the Postmaster General, it was decided officially to commence free rural mail delivery throughout Canada in the near future. The action plan for this postal reform was to be implemented in stages. First of all, only existing postal routes would be equipped with mailboxes. It was also agreed that the system would be expanded proportionally with the growth of the country. On 17 September 1908, a circular was published to let Canadians know about the new postal reform.
Finally, on 10 October 1908, the first free mail delivery service in rural Canada was inaugurated. A group of 25 to 40 persons gathered to mark the official opening of this service on the postal route between Ancaster and Hamilton in Wentworth County, Ontario. This first postal route, along which 37 letterboxes were installed, was served by Daniel Morrison, the first Canadian rural courier. The first letter carried by Morrison was from Mrs. W. O. Sealy, the Liberal candidate in the said county, and was addressed to Postmaster General Lemieux to congratulate him on introducing the service. These two Liberal candidates were in fact elected in their respective ridings when Lauriers Liberal government was returned to power on 26 October 1908. By that time there were already about 100 postal routes serving rural communities.
Hillman, Thomas. "The Introduction of Rural Mail Delivery Service in Canada." Paper presented to the BNA Philatelic Society in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, 18 September 1987.
Wilcox, George. History of Rural Mail in Canada. Ottawa: Canada Post, 1975.