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Halifax’s mail fail

Canada Post’s new community mailboxes are going to kill someone, and it’ll be the city’s fault.


Jim Matthews and Barrie Ross in front of their future community mailbox.
  • Jim Matthews and Barrie Ross in front of their future community mailbox.

Right now it's quiet on Chandler Drive. There're no squealing tires or screeching brakes—no crash of metal into metal. Not yet, anyway. There's still plenty of traffic up above, on Glendale Drive. The point where the two streets intersect may be one of the most dangerous turns in Lower Sackville. Less than 30 metres down from that, on a sharp decline, is where Canada Post has installed its new community mailboxes.

Both Glendale and main street Sackville Drive run parallel through Sackville. In one direction they cross Beaver Bank Road, which drivers use to reach the Metro Link terminal and Highway 101. The other way, you can take Cobequid Road through to Burnside, or keep going to the Bi-Hi. Commuters regularly speed 10, 20 kilometres over the legal limit while racing down Glendale. There are no lights at the Chandler intersection, only a stop sign for drivers trying to turn up the hill onto Glendale. Turning left onto Chandler means taking whatever small window of space is available. It's risky in the best of weather, foolish in the worst. That's why no one who actually lives in the subdivision bothers using that exit.

"When we used to turn this corner off of Glendale in the winter, we would just slide down the hill," says Jim Matthews. "You just get to the point where you don't make the turn."

Matthews has lived on Johnson Crescent, the first left off of Chandler, for 35 years. Nobody, he says, nobody in that neighbourhood who needs to get in or out uses the Glendale intersection. They'll drive through the back instead, coming out the long way on McGee Drive.

It is not a safe corner. But come the end of the month, Matthews and his neighbours will have to pick up their mail from the shiny new community mailboxes Canada Post has implanted on that spot. They've tried to fight that decision, but after months of correspondence and all efforts to convince them, Canada Post and the city of Halifax don't seem to care that this community doesn't want its community mailbox.

"Why?" That's the question left in Matthews' head about Canada Post.

"Why are they so adamant not to listen to their customers? If it were FedEx, and we asked FedEx to put them over there, they'd move them in a minute. They're a business."

He pauses in bewilderment.

"Why don't they seem to care?"

Return to sender

Upkeep of the new community mailboxes will generally be the responsibility of Canada Post. The crown corporation plans to handle snow and ice removal in the winter, as well as tidying up garbage from around the sites. But it's refusing to install any garbage or recycling containers near the mailboxes, and instead advises residents to properly dispose of all junk mail at home. Another problem will be box security. A CBC investigation on community mailboxes in British Columbia found nearly 5,000 incidents of vandalism, arson and mail theft over five years. The mayor of Coquitlam told reporters some community mailboxes were broken into at least once a year for over a decade. Canada Post's Jon Hamilton brushes aside those worries. "A locked box is always going to be safer than an unlocked box on your doorstep."

Close to 10,000 HRM addresses will convert to community mailboxes before Halloween, mostly in the Bedford and Lower Sackville region. Dartmouth is next, followed by the rest of Halifax. Almost 35,000 homes throughout the entire municipality will switch to community mail in the next four years.

It's all part of Canada Post's "five-point action plan," which sets to dramatically change how the crown corporation deals with its customers. Mail has largely migrated online. The number of bills and letters Canada Post delivers is dropping, so drastic measures are being taken. Stamp prices are rising, jobs are being eliminated and Canada is about to become the only G8 country in the world without door-to-door mail service.

"The platform on which we built the business that is called 'mail' is eroding at a very quick pace and that's not going to stop," says Canada Post spokesperson Jon Hamilton. "We need to do everything now to outpace that deadline."

Hamilton says Canada Post has gone throughout Canada, including Chandler Drive, knocking on doors and seeking feedback. Bullshit, say Matthews and his neighbours. There was a survey, asking if homeowners would prefer small mailboxes close to home or big boxes farther away. Other than that, no input has been solicited and no one has acted on their concerns.

"At the end of the day, the boxes have to go somewhere," says Hamilton. "In some cases, people aren't happy with the final result."

Three times after he first moved to Chandler Drive, Matthews slid across the street turning down off of Glendale. He eventually stopped making the turn even if it was just raining. He says he's been lucky to avoid other collisions over the years with drivers speeding down the sloping street.

Personal experience be damned, though—Matthews has a PhD in engineering and a 30-year career doing failure analysis for the federal government. If he thinks the corner isn't safe, he's probably right.

So he started the emails. Over July and August he corresponded multiple times with those who were supposed to be in charge. He gathered signatures from all 22 houses and two postal codes involved, begging not to put mailboxes at this corner. He met with representatives from the city and Canada Post, to show them the problem with their own eyes. Over and over again he was told there was nothing to be done. Canada Post can put boxes wherever they want, and they've chosen to put it where someone's likely to be killed.

Bureaucratic hypocrisy kept getting in the way. The city said it has no authority on mailbox placement, but HRM engineers approved the Chandler Drive location. Canada Post says all of the information it's received suggests Chandler is a perfectly safe corner. Ironically, it is, but only because it's so dangerous. Traffic on that corner now is a fraction of what will be present once the mailboxes start being used. No one uses that intersection currently, Matthews notes. There's no reason to.

Just move them, the families that will use the mailboxes ask. About 100 metres away from where the boxes now stand is a flat stretch of Johnson Crescent. It's 500 feet of nothing but city property, which already has several community mailboxes embedded in the ground for other homes farther away. With the spare mailbox slots in each location, Matthews estimates the community would even need one fewer box if the two sites were combined. Canada Post won't disclose the cost of purchasing and installing its new boxes [see "Postage fees" sidebar, page 11], but saving one box likely means saving thousands of dollars.

Which is funny, since saving money is what this whole enterprise is supposed to be about. Canada Post claims to have delivered one billion fewer pieces of mail from 2007 to 2012, and it projects its proposed cuts will save the crown corporation almost $500 million dollars. But the April 2013 Conference Board of Canada report which triggered these changes also predicted Canada Post would lose $400 million in 2014. Instead, it's shown a $53-million profit. If community mailboxes are just an attempt to increase profits by an already profitable company, then it begs the question as to which "community" those mailboxes are really meant to serve.

Community mailboxes like these are on their way to a street near you.
  • Community mailboxes like these are on their way to a street near you.

Postage fees

Just how much is it costing Canada Post to buy and install community mailboxes for the five million Canadians it plans to switch over? That's a good question, since the crown corporation is keeping costs a closely guarded secret. "We don't really talk about that," Jon Hamilton says. What is known is that the boxes are actually based on an American design, and purchased from the US Postal Service. "Where they're built, I don't know," says Hamilton.

Elsewhere on Johnson Crescent, not far from Jim Matthews, lives Brenda Hoddinott. She's an author now, but for 25 years she worked as a forensic artist with major crime units. Often that meant late nights, so the courteous RCMP officers she worked with would give her a lift home. That was the case one snowy evening around 10 years ago, as Hoddinott and her driver turned the corner from Glendale onto Chandler. The four-wheel-drive SUV slipped and ran off the road—into the exact spot where her new mailbox now stands. No one was hurt. A snowbank stopped the vehicle instead of a wall of metal.

It might explain why Hoddinott was horrified this summer to discover where Canada Post now wants her to pick up her mail.

"If a similar incident happens when someone is standing in that same location retrieving their mail, the outcome might be fatal," she wrote to her city councillor. The mailbox needed to be moved, and she wanted help to make that happen. She didn't find any.

"As you know, I have no authority in CPC's or Halifax staff's decision in this regard," councillor Steve Craig emailed back about 10 minutes later. He lamented the proposed location and said he shared her concerns, but believed there was nothing to be done. It's been the official response from Halifax to its residents: this is Canada Post's call, and we can't help.

"We can make suggestions," says Taso Koutroulakis, HRM's manager of traffic and right of way. "You can advise them with respect to locations, but ultimately it's their decision where they locate boxes."

"I find it rather bizarre to say it's not a municipality's place," says mayor Peter Trent of Westmount, Quebec. "These boxes, if they do indeed wind up being implemented, are right in front of us. How can we ignore them?"

After outcry from its citizens, the town of Westmount joined with 15 other municipalities on the island of Montreal in an attempt to stop these "mailbox condos" from taking over their streets. The towns are denying permits to Canada Post, in a move that may or may not turn out to be totally legal. But it doesn't matter, says Trent. This is a political battle, not a legal one.

"There is a possibility that they do have a constitutional right to override any municipal regulations," he says, "however they do it at their peril."

Canada Post, Trent believes, is ignoring the will of the people. He doesn't understand how a crown corporation can simply decide what the Canadian public has to accept. It's his hope other towns, rural and urban, stand up as well and fight for their citizens.

"I'm not doing this for any pleasure or fun or anything," Trent says. "I really do feel Canada Post is acting in an extremely high-handed, imperialistic manner and dictating to all Canadians how they will receive their mail."

One letter that Canada Post definitely won't deliver was to have come from Halifax regional council. It would have expressed concerns to the federal minister for Canada Post about the changes to residential delivery. A simple statement to show that Halifax was worried. Councillor Jennifer Watts put forward the motion to send the letter on August 5, and it was voted down 11 to three.

"I appreciate the spirit and intent, but it's not going to do anything," said Halifax West Armdale councillor Linda Mosher at the meeting. "I just think we should stick to what we have authority over."

"We don't know the business case behind these changes, and it's not our decision to make," added deputy mayor Darren Fisher.

"Quite frankly, this is not our jurisdiction," said Dartmouth South-Eastern Passage councillor Bill Karsten.

Only Watts, and fellow councillors Waye Mason and Tim Outhit, voted in favour of the largely symbolic effort to send a strongly-worded letter.

Bedford-Wentworth councillor Outhit doesn't agree these mailboxes fall outside of council's purview.

"If the Navy were cutting several thousand jobs in Nova Scotia, or CN, I'm sure we would have sent a note off to them," he says. "I guess they just figured they didn't want to get involved."


The problem is we're already involved. Not only because it's Halifax streets and Halifax residents who have to deal with these changes, but because the city has now signed an agreement to aid Canada Post in implementing their plans.

The agreement, put forward on July 22 by Steve Craig and approved 16 to one, defines the responsibilities for the installation, upkeep and liability of community mailboxes and outlines how Canada Post and HRM will work together.

It couldn't be more neutered. The city can approve all future mailbox locations, but only so long as "approval shall not unreasonably be withheld." If it wants a box relocated, HRM must notify Canada Post in writing. The two public bodies will then "work together in good faith" to alleviate any concerns. But Canada Post doesn't have to. If the crown corporation thinks the mailbox is fine where it is, and doesn't want to spend thousands of dollars to move it, the city can only do two things: Jack and shit.

It's all a face-saving tactic endorsed by the Canadian Federation of Municipalities. Cities appear to have a seat at the table, without having any real authority. Halifax, it seems, would rather by a puppet, propped up by its mail-delivering conquerers, than fight back against this invasion of street furniture.

One city that'd rather fight is Hamilton, Ontario. It's enacting new by-laws to prevent the installation of these "super mailboxes."

Councillor Terry Whitehead says Canada Post isn't allowed to just come in and retrofit these boxes onto existing neighbourhoods.

"These are our citizens, and we have to take some kind of responsibility for them," Whitehead says. "Anything [Canada Post does] shouldn't have any financial impact on the city."

The agreement Halifax entered into with Canada Post does hold the crown corporation responsible for community mailbox upkeep. But any accidents because of the mailboxes are going to be open to a lot more legal interpretation. Depending on who gets hurt where, HRM could still be on the line for damages.

"I can't comment," says Koutroulakis. "It all depends on the specifics of the collision."

Twice a week, all through the summer, Robert Chisholm's been going door-to-door in Dartmouth. The NDP Member of Parliament for Dartmouth-Cole Harbour has been pounding the pavement, trying to do what Canada Post didn't—talk to the residents actually impacted by community mail. He and other volunteers carry a petition, to be shown in Ottawa in hopes that the federal government will put a moratorium on Canada Post's five-year plan. He says they've collected over 1,000 signatures in Dartmouth alone. Young and old, everyone who answers the door seems happy to sign. One of those signatures belongs to Margie Carter.

She used to know a lot of postal workers. Her late husband was a letter carrier, and in the '80s she worked at the credit union inside a post office. There's lots of good stories from those days.

"One guy had a dog," she says of a former co-worker who would come in on his lunch, pooch by his side. Everyone at the office just assumed it was the letter carrier's pet. "It belonged to one of the old guys on his route. He'd take it for a walk, brings it back at suppertime."

Carter believes home delivery does a lot more for community than some impersonal metal box down the road.

"There were a lot of letter carriers with older clients on their route," she says. "If they didn't see those people for two or three days, they'd know something was wrong."

Her current home in Portland Estates already has community mailboxes, but Carter says she hates using hers—too many spiders living between the boxes. Having seen how postal workers help bind a community, she can't support what Canada Post is doing.

"Some of my old letter carriers, they'd be rolling over in their graves. My husband, if he was alive, would be at the front of the line fighting this."

The federal NDP is trying to hold that line. Its proposed moratorium would call for proper, transparent public consultations to be held to determine the best business model for Canada Post and Canadians.

"If you don't like something, say so," Chisholm urges residents. "At least you can say you stood up."

That's why he too is frustrated with the city's attitude. What should elected leaders be doing if not fighting on behalf of their voters?

"Based on my experience, councillors should be engaged in anything happening in their communities."

Special delivery

Disabled Canadians can still apply for home delivery of their mail, but the process isn't perfect. Instead of five days a week, those unable to access their community mailbox could be eligible for one-day-a-week home delivery. That's provided they send along a doctor's note and basic medical information for Canada Post's approval. Shortly after its five-point plan was announced, Canada Post's CEO Deepak Chopra bizarrely told MPs that Canadian seniors stood to benefit from the additional exercise and fresh air gained from walking to their new outdoor mailboxes.

Several months back, the postal worker's union wanted to present its own worries to council, but was refused. Chisholm wrote a letter, urging council to reconsider, but no luck.

The city says that was a procedural issue. No one meets with council like that. The union should have tried presenting at the committee level instead. Representatives from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers did meet with mayor Mike Savage shortly after Canada Post's cutbacks were announced, but it didn't go well. Tony Rogers, president of CUPW Atlantic, believes that was due to the "cozy position" between Halifax and the crown corporation.

"They seem very eager to accommodate Canada Post," he says. "Obviously they didn't consider it beyond their purview to work with Canada Post to put these boxes up."

The union's worried, both nationally and locally. Canada Post expects their workforce to reduce naturally by 8,000 positions over the next five years: For every two people who retire, only one new employee is hired. But union documents show that's unlikely to be the case. In the Bedford/Lower Sackville area alone, Canada Post is now expecting a drop in service levels of over 50 percent. It seems unlikely they'll keep on basically the same number of workers to do half the work.

"The rate of attrition through retirement is not even going to handle the Bedford/Sackville loss," says Rogers.

Jon Hamilton says Canada Post remains committed to not laying off any staff and "fully respecting the collective agreement" it has with its union.

Things could all still change, of course. Canada Post is a "political football," as Tony Rogers calls it. Still on the periphery of denser urban regions, it isn't too late to stop community mail before all home delivery is wiped out across Canada. With a federal election looming next year, public pressure may be the key to halting the cuts and saving lives on Chandler Drive.

Canada Post wants to run itself like a business, maximizing profits and cutting back on costs, but the delivery of mail should be a public service. If cuts were necessary to continue that service, and current profit margins suggest they aren't, then there are other options. In a consultation Canada Post did with customers months before launching their five-point plan, it found residents would be perfectly happy with a "relaxing of performance standards" that decreased how often mail was delivered. Despite being popular, and having potential for significant savings, Canada Post dismissed the idea over fears it would further decelerate mail volumes.

That's the problem—Canada Post can decide to do whatever the hell it wants, and yet it's Canadians who have to accommodate them. It's a frustrating and futile situation, according to Steve Craig.

"We don't have any authority," the city councillor says. "We don't have any authority or governance over Halifax Water; certainly we don't have any authority over a crown corporation."

All Craig says he can do for the outraged citizens he's been elected to represent is offer a sympathetic ear and try his best within his limited powers.

"If it was my job to make the decision where things go, great. But it's not my job to do that," he says. "The realm of the possible is not always there."

Changing where the mail will be delivered on Chandler Drive does seem outside the "realm of the possible." Jon Hamilton says Canada Post has received some complaints about a few community mailbox locations in the HRM. After meeting with people on Chandler Drive and reviewing the site, he says Canada Post will be sticking with the box's current location.

"Change is never easy," Hamilton consoles. "We are catching up to what Canadians have been telling us they're looking for. OK Canada, this is what you're looking for? This is what we've got for you."

Despite all the political hand-washing, the city does have one easy fix to Jim Matthews' problem—and it doesn't need Canada Post's approval to do it. The traffic department could install a light at Glendale and Chandler, effectively eliminating the dangerous driving overnight. It's what makes these past few months so infuriating for Jim Matthews and his neighbours. These are Halifax streets, but Canada Post is in charge.

"I don't understand why they have control and why no one can overrule them," Matthews says. "Curiosity is keeping us involved. Why are they like this?"

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