Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canada Post cannot continue to deliver mail as it now does

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The great race between email and snail mail is over. And the snail got its tail kicked.

Given the choice between sending a written message halfway around the world in seconds electronically or waiting days, even weeks, for the same words in a stamped envelope to travel there by air, sea or land, more governments, businesses and ordinary people are turning their backs on the old and embracing the new. This means that Canada Post, as we know it, is doomed.

A new Conference Board of Canada report spells this out in no uncertain terms, warning drastic and irreversible declines in mail volume caused by new technologies will leave Canada Post bleeding $1 billion a year in operating losses by 2020.

Of course, the nation's venerable letter -- and parcel -- carrier is only one of the victims dispatched by the communications revolution. Email, text messaging -- including of course BlackBerry Messenger -- smartphones, websites, Twitter, tablets and e-readers have all transformed the way humans communicate while disrupting entire, and once-profitable, industries. Newspapers, magazines, television networks, phone-book companies -- all have seen their business models blasted and struggled for survival.

Canada Post cannot turn back this tsunami of change. The federal government is phasing out the use of paper cheques by April 2016, and no wonder. It costs the government 13 cents for electronic direct deposit; producing a cheque costs 82 cents.

Or consider that half the households surveyed for the Conference Board of Canada report said they sent just two pieces of mail or less a month. Nearly one billion fewer pieces of mail were posted within Canada in 2012 than 2006. Not surprisingly, 16 profitable years for Canada Post came crashing to an end in 2011 when it lost $253 million. The Crown corporation predicts another loss this year.

The message from the Conference Board report couldn't be clearer. Canadians will pay more and more, and this will include money that could be better spent on health care, education or the environment, for a postal service they use less and less. Or they can accept a radically different kind of national postal system. Drastic change is the only sensible course of action.

What's needed now is a national discussion of the issue and a comprehensive plan of action that can be implemented over a number of years. The welfare of a large workforce should be paramount. Phased-in change can greatly reduce the pain and uncertainty that will hit Canada Post staff. Nor should we ignore the needs of rural Canadians or those who have not embraced new technologies, and in this group are many elderly people. They will be best served if they have time to adapt to the new, and hopefully improved, Canada Post.

One obvious solution would be to have alternate-day mail delivery. Considering how few vital communications move by mail today, would such a change truly inconvenience anyone? Eliminating delivery to the door for urban residential customers -- who might wind up using group mailboxes -- would promise the greatest savings: $576 million a year. Replacing more corporate post offices with franchised outlets is another option.

Other countries have already made changes. Much of Europe has opened up the market to allow more competition with national postal services, or even privatized the work those services provide. Netherlands saw productivity rise and labour costs fall when it privatized its postal system. One way or another, Canada will follow suit.

It's not time to play the last post for Canada Post. But it cannot continue as it is today. Put that in an email and send it.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 A17

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