Rural Canadians may lose post offices

The post office is an important place in a town with three grocery stores, one gas station, and a single tiny bank branch that closes an hour for lunch every day. In this and other rural Canadian towns, the post office is an important institution. But it won't be for long if the federal government has its way. As part of a cost-cutting measure, most rural post offices will be phased out over the next ten years. Some 194 have been closed since 1986, and rural Canadians don't like it one bit.

``Our local post office is important for more than mail,'' says Lalage Hackett, who lives outside of Mansonville. ``For one thing, we're so far away from a big town that the post office is the only one who offers overnight courier service. The competition won't come out this far.''

Mansonville is about two miles north of the Vermont border. People who ski can see the top of Jay Peak from here. Like a lot of border towns, it is somewhat isolated. It is closer to North Troy, Vt., than Knowlton, Quebec.

The people here want to keep their post office, but they might have trouble. Canada Post - as the Canadian Post office is called - has plans for most of the rural post offices of Canada. Shut them down.

There are 5,200 rural post offices in places from Stettler, Alberta, to Digby, Nova Scotia. And all of them are going to be hived off to local businesses, ``the private sector,'' says Brenda Adams, an official of Canada Post in Ottawa.

Canada Post plans to save tens of millions of dollars by moving post offices to the back of mom-and-pop stores across Canada. Post office boxes, now inside the post office doors, will move to group boxes, or clusters of post office boxes at major rural intersections. This has already been done in many rural areas as well as new suburban subdivisions where the dream house often comes without a mailman.

The idea behind this is to get rid of the C$180 million annual deficit at the post office, bit by bit. The salary of the postmaster of the town of Wilno, Ontario was C$11,000. Now a private store is handling the post office business on a contract for C$2,000 a year.

``We see this as more, not less,'' Ms. Adams says. No more salary means a saving. ``Of course the storeowner is not paid. Procter & Gamble doesn't pay a store owner to sell its products. It is done on a commission basis.''

Some 10,000 men and women work in rural post offices in Canada. The president of their union, Lloyd Johnson, says the post office provides services other than mail. ``In many places, it is the only office of the federal government. Our people provide federal and provincial tax forms and special services for farmers and the elderly.''

The union is fighting the cutback in rural mail services by lobbying members of Parliament from rural districts. So far, they have been successful in preserving rural mail delivery.

``It is an attack on rural Canada,'' says Cynthia Patterson of Rural Dignity, a protest group. ``We're trying to revitalize rural living and the rural economy, and it can't be done without things such as a local post office.''

Ms. Patterson lives in the Quebec village of Barchois de Malbaie, population 250. She says some branches of the federal government are trying to promote the economy through such things as grants to industry, while others such as the post office are taking services away. She also feels women in the countryside are more affected by the postal cutbacks.

``Eighty-two percent of the rural postmasters are women, and not only is that income removed from rural communities but so are benfits such as pensions,'' she says.

The post office says shifting services to private storeowners will modernize things. A post office video called ``Building Postal Services for the 21st Century'' describes rural postal services as ``... a network that does not reflect evolving needs or changes that have taken place in the Canadian population since the 19th century.''

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