FREDERICTON – The old adage about snow, sleet and rain never stopping mail delivery is being rewritten by Canada Post for its rural and suburban customers.
It turns out snowfall is one of the factors the Crown corporation is considering as it moves ahead with its Canada-wide assessment of the safety of rural mailboxes – one of the traditional icons of country life.
So far, about 14,000 rural Canadians, mostly in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes, have lost their roadside mailboxes because Canada Post has decided it’s too hazardous to deliver their mail.
That represents 30 per cent of the roughly 47,000 boxes that have come under scrutiny as Canada Post begins applying a new assessment tool to determine the safety of each and every one of the 843,000 rural mailboxes it serves.
The process has raised hackles in the Fredericton area, one of the first locations to feel the sting of rural mailbox closures as Canada Post responds to health and safety concerns raised by its unionized workers who deliver mail.
In a recent assessment of 2,535 mailboxes in rural and suburban communities near Fredericton, 1,255 of them, or almost half, failed to meet safety standards.
“My mailbox was placed at a spot that has an unimpeded view of at least two-thirds of a mile down the road, but I guess that wasn’t good enough for the rocket scientists at Canada Post,” fumed one displaced customer in a letter to the Fredericton Gleaner newspaper.
“What I see here is the gradual but ultimate erosion of all rural mail delivery.”
Canada Post spokeswoman Avril Vollenhoven said the corporation does not expect Fredericton’s high failure rate to be repeated across the country.
“Every rural route is different, so I don’t even want to speculate how it will play out in other parts of the country,” she said.
“There are high numbers of rural mailboxes in a concentrated area in Fredericton. You also have terrible snowfall . . . and look at the kinds of roads in and around the Fredericton area. It is not a representation of what we’re going to find in other parts of the country.”
Vollenhoven said it’s important to note that not everyone who fails the safety assessment loses their mailbox. In some cases, it’s possible to relocate the box.
But if relocation is not possible, the customer will have to use either a community mailbox or a free post office box.
Vollenhoven said Canada Post has put together a priority list of rural routes to be reviewed based on such factors as volume of mailboxes and weather patterns, including snowfall rates.
“It goes to road conditions,” she said.
“Weather is a great factor when it comes to delivering mail on rural routes. Snow is a major contributing factor, but I don’t want to make it more important that the volume of rural mailboxes on the route.”
Suspicions have been expressed by some customers and politicians that Canada Post may be seizing on health and safety concerns in order to shut down as many roadside boxes as possible.
Deborah Bourque, president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, shares those concerns.
“I worry there is some truth to that,” Bourque said in an interview. “That was our concern when all this started because Canada Post’s first reaction was to simply move people to community mailboxes.
“Actually, that has been our concern for a couple of decades.”
Bourque said the union is unhappy that Canada Post has failed to involve its members at the local level in determining rural route safety.
She said union members believe the post office is not seriously considering other options.
“We think there are alternatives to cutting off delivery and sending folks many kilometres down the road to community mailboxes, ” she said.
“We think if Canada Post involved the union at the local level it would be easier to come up with those alternatives. Right now, Canada Post is not involving the union at the local level and they have this third party assessing the mailboxes.”
Canada Post expects to spend $475 million to $640 million over more than five years to assess rural delivery.
The federal Conservative government has ordered the post office to continue rural roadside delivery, within the law.
Canada Post says it is obligated under Canadian labour laws to ensure the safety of its workers.
Postal workers have expressed concerns about the risk to rural carriers who deliver mail to roadside boxes. There have been several accidents and two fatalities in recent years.
Carriers are also worried about repetitive-strain injury from leaning out vehicle windows to stuff the mail into roadside boxes.
Here are some of the things Canada Post looks at in determining the safety of rural mailboxes:
-Number of highway lanes.
-Number of vehicles.
-Position of stopped mail carrier’s vehicle.
-Presence of double-yellow centreline markings.
-Sight distances for approaching drivers to the stopped mail carrier’s vehicle.
-Sight distances for the mail carrier to merge in traffic.
-Waiting time for a safe gap to merge back into traffic.