Winged Messenger: Airmail in the Heroic Era, 1918-1939

Canadian Airmail: A Late Bloomer

The airplane was the workhorse of Canadian transport history beginning at the end of the First World War. The airplane helped Dominion surveyors map the seemingly endless expanse of land and water in the north; it enabled pulp and paper producers to better patrol their forest reserves, since thousands of acres of timber could be surveyed in a single flight; and it allowed mining companies to fly prospectors in to the most isolated places. The airplane, however, was not, at the outset, used to fly mail, except informally or illegally. Canada entered the airmail age only in 1928. In contrast with some other industrialized countries, we were behind schedule.

As seen above, a number of airmail systems were up and running both in Europe and America by 1918-1919. Some attempts were made to prod the Canadian Post Office Department into adopting an airmail policy at this time. Flying clubs approached the Post Office with the intention of establishing a regular airmail service within the Ottawa-Montreal-Toronto triangle. They were turned down, although they were allowed to go through with a few special flights.

Commemorative airmail flights were also conducted in 1918 by Katherine Stinson between Calgary and Edmonton. A more successful example was set for the government by air carriers who, in 1926, introduced a private airmail service. Laurentide Air Service was granted the right to take mail in and out of Rouyn, a mining centre in Quebec's Abitibi region. In the same year, Patricia Airways began carrying mail to and from the bush and mining camps of Sioux Lookout, Red Lake and Woman Lake in Northern Ontario. In both cases, one had to pay for the "Special Air Delivery" over and above the amount paid on regular postage.

The Post Office's commitment to airmail was almost accidental. At a conference held in London in 1926, Prime Minister Mackenzie King pledged Canada's support for a British imperial system of airship communications. 1 Aviation officials looked for a suitable base, and became interested in a flat piece of land on the south shore of the St. Lawrence near Saint-Hubert, outside Montreal. At around the same time, postal and aviation officials began seriously considering the establishment of an airmail service. Originally intended as a base for airships, the Saint-Hubert landing field became the centre-piece of their nascent airmail strategy.

1 The system of airships involved the use of lighter-than-air dirigibles. These craft were very different from airplanes. The Hindenburg which crashed at Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937 was a dirigible.

Airmail and the Postal Village | Canadian Airmail: A Late Bloomer | Experiments | Building the System Region by Region | Bringing Home the Goods | The Bush Pilot | Credits