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CPAA Tells Federal Election Candidates Not to Turn Their Backs on Rural Canada

Brenda McAuley with Kate McDonald, Postmaster for the Village of Tamworth, Ontario.

Prior to the election being called, CPAA National President Brenda McAuley published an opinion editorial in The Hill Times, the Parliament Hill newspaper, entitled

“Voters will return politicians to sender if backs turned on rural Canada.”

Here is the text:

Compared to vote-rich urban Canada, rural ridings can seem unappealing to federal candidates. Due to their sparser demographics, they are tougher and more resource-intensive to campaign in. Rural ridings often resist change, sticking to traditional voting patterns (which favour the Conservatives).  Priorities and issues for rural residents may differ greatly from their urban counterparts, which is sometimes difficult for urban-based politicians to wrap their heads around.

According to retiring Conservative MP, Larry Miller (Bruce-Huron) in an April interview with Global News, rural Canadians don’t hold great expectations for getting government services beyond the basics. However, governments have historically learned the hard way that cutting those basic services to rural areas costs them dearly.

For example, in 1986, the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney backed Canada Post management’s plan to end home delivery in new suburban and rural developments, close 1,700 rural post offices and switch to private contractors to run the rest. This move resulted in the formation of a grassroots organization called Rural Dignity, which soon had chapters in every region of the country, composed of “mayors, teachers, farmers, fishermen, clergy, artists, students, ranchers, postmasters, lawyers, elders, crafts people, academics and musicians” as one letter to The Ituna News put it in 1990.

Rural Dignity’s objectives were to preserve rural communities and promote understanding of rural concerns; to work to keep vital services, such as post offices, trains and public broadcasting in rural Canada; and to communicate with and represent the concerns of isolated communities to government, associations and other relevant agencies. They engaged in creative actions such as a “Coast to Coast for Rural Post” caravan and in January 1993, held “the world’s longest political protest banner” outside the new Canada Post headquarters in Ottawa, measuring 224 metres and bearing the names of 1,399 Canadian communities that had lost their post offices since 1986.

A few months later, the Conservatives were all but wiped out in the June 1993 election and a year later, the incoming Liberal government imposed a moratorium on the closure of rural post offices, vowing  “As long as this Government is in power, no rural post office will be closed.”

History seemed to repeat itself in 2015, after a massive public outcry at Conservative-backed cuts to Canada Post under Stephen Harper’s government. The unpopular move to end home delivery and push for further privatization became one of the top five election issues and the Liberals were elected on a promise to stop the cost-cutting plan in its tracks.

Post offices are the nucleus of rural towns and villages, and local small businesses and residents are still highly dependent on them. The much-vaunted digital solutions to sending and receiving mail don’t work for rural Canada where internet service is not as reliable as in urban areas. Parcel delivery is increasingly crucial to sustaining local economies.

And yet, despite the present government putting a halt to the reduction of operating hours at rural post offices,Canada’s rural communities continue to experience the threat of closures and the downgrading of service when a Postmaster retires or a post office building comes up for lease renewal, circumstances under which the 1994 moratorium can be circumvented. Any cut to a rural post office is a blow to the heart of its community as thousands of resolutions from rural municipalities attest. The privatization of our postal service hits rural areas hardest because it is not as profitable to operate there.

Postmasters and other postal employees have been pushing for innovations, rather than cuts, to shore up the postal network. Many other countries use their post offices for all kinds of services, including financial, community, and additional governmental programs. In small communities where the post office is often the sole presence of government, it only makes sense to consolidate and leverage this network. Post offices might even be used as part of rural broadband infrastructure. But despite an extensive review which supported some of these ideas, the uptake has been excruciatingly slow.

The Liberals created a new Cabinet position for Rural Economic Development which, on the face of it, seems promising. However, we have repeatedly asked all the political parties vying for the rural vote what they intend to do with our post offices. The responses, again, have been slow in coming and we Postmasters, at the heart of our communities, will remember that. While rural Canada may seem not to expect as much in the way of services, governments ignore rural postal services at their peril. All federal candidates should keep this history lesson in mind.