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

Building the System Region by Region

With one season of experimentation under its belt, the Post Office proceeded to implement a national policy of airmail. The first contracts, signed in May 1928, provided service in Canada's core economic and political area: Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. (Some mail was already being delivered along the lower north shore of the St. Lawrence in the fall-winter of 1927-1928.) The system was designed to accelerate communication between this core area, and incoming and outgoing transatlantic vessels; however, due to the early development of airmail routes to points south of the border — Montreal to Albany, Toronto to Buffalo, and later Toronto to Detroit — the system functioned more or less in unison with the larger American one. North-south ties eventually linked Western Canada with the U.S. in British Columbia (Vancouver-Seattle), Alberta (Lethbridge-Great Falls, Montana) and Manitoba (Winnipeg-Fargo, North Dakota).

The Maritimes

Canada's airmail system emerged in a segmented fashion. Once the core area was developed in 1928, a hook-up was soon made with the Maritimes. Reaching Saint John, New Brunswick and Halifax, Nova Scotia early in 1929, the route ran directly down the Saint John valley. However, within two years the route was scrapped: the economy was in a depression, and the federal government decided to prune the airmail budget. All that remained was the modest service operating across the Strait of Northumberland between Moncton and Charlottetown, P.E.I. The Maritime provinces were not reintegrated into the Canadian airmail stream until 1940.

The West Coast

Airmail service between Victoria and Vancouver began to operate intermittently in 1928, but there was no direct contact by air with the rest of Canada until 1939. Topography did not represent an insurmountable barrier; after all, the Americans had managed to find a way through the western cordillera in 1927. But, initially at least, it was easier to go south. Accordingly Vancouver was linked to Seattle, Washington in 1935. Seattle became B.C.'s window on the airmail world. The system was not perfect; mail was at times delayed by fog and technical problems. On one occasion, it was ingloriously driven to Seattle by automobile. Two years later (1937), considerable public discussion and debate in and around Vancouver followed the decision to open an airmail service between Edmonton and Whitehorse. Vancouver, not Edmonton, it was argued, was the natural metropolis of the Yukon. Eventually the southern mainland was linked via Prince George to the Edmonton-Whitehorse mail plane that touched down at Fort St. John, in the north-west corner of the province.

The Prairies

Airmail service was initiated in the three Prairie provinces in March 1930. Considerable agitation in press and political circles pushed the government into action. "WEST NEEDS AIRMAIL SYSTEM" read a typical headline in the Calgary Albertan shortly after the introduction of airmail in Central Canada. The implementation of airmail on the Prairies was an event of national importance. Night flying of airmail in Canada was first introduced here, and required the construction and design of landing fields and a host of visual navigation aids: beacon lights, floodlights, etc. A peculiarity of the airmail system on the Prairies was that it was linked on its eastern and western flanks to the railway mail service, as there was no through airmail service over the Rockies or across the shield terrain north of the Great Lakes until the late 1930s. Competition between Edmonton and Calgary for the right to dispense airmail was intense. Eventually both cities were linked directly to Winnipeg, the eastern terminal for the Prairie airmail service.

The North

The North was the final frontier of Canadian airmail and where the introduction of airmail service had the most dramatic impact. Here, to paraphrase a well-known football saying, airmail wasn't the best thing, it was the only thing. If, during the 1930s, someone living between Yellowknife and Moosonee wanted to conduct postal correspondence — for whatever purpose, even ordering a set of false teeth from Edmonton — he or she could only do so if there was an air link to the area. By the late 1930s, three routes covered the North: one ran in the direction of Coppermine on the Arctic Ocean; a second (the oldest one), opened up by Wop May on December 10, 1929, followed the Mackenzie Valley to Aklavik; and a third ran from Edmonton to Whitehorse and Dawson in the Yukon.

The system was barely up and running during the early 1930s when it experienced a partial shut-down. The entire main line of the Prairie service was closed in 1932. But airmail made a comeback. Substantial government investment during the late 1930s, both in the Trans-Canada Airway and in Trans-Canada Air Lines, made coast-to-coast airmail service a reality before the outbreak of the Second World War. For the next two to three decades, airmail became the backbone of Canada's long-distance communication system.

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