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Mail delivery cutbacks a calculated risk for Conservatives

Mail carrier Leo Gaspari delivers mail on his route in the Don Mills and Lawrence area in Toronto on Dec. 11, 12013. Gaspari has worked for Canada Post for 33 years, 20 of which he has delivered mail. He will be retiring in two years but is worried about the pension trouble Canada Post is having.


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Canada Post may be at arm's length from government, but mail and politics have always been closely linked.

When the Conservative government imposed back-to-work legislation in 2011 to end a labour dispute at Canada Post, Tory MPs justified the move by saying they were hearing complaints from constituents and needed to restore an essential service.

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But Wednesday's announcement that Canada Post is ending urban home delivery sent a different message: The government maintains that it is acting to save taxpayers' money.

And it expects to find a somewhat supportive audience.

Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., who was chairman of a 2008 federal advisory committee on Canada Post, said the mail is a politically sensitive service and big changes would have been well thought out inside government.

"Governments tend to be cautious about postal changes. This is a government whose core base is in small towns and rural Canada, and whenever Canada Post screws up or there is a big postal change, it's the constituents in those ridings in particular who get on the backs of their MPs."

This is often the No. 1 issue in caucus, he said. "This has to have cabinet backing," he said.

The fact that the announcement came the day after the House of Commons rose for a six-week recess led to immediate speculation that the Conservatives knew the news would be unpopular and did not want to answer questions about it in Parliament. Lisa Raitt, the federal minister responsible for Canada Post, issued a statement supporting the changes on Wednesday, noting that Canadians are sending less mail than ever. But her office turned down media requests for interviews with the minister.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers realizes privatization is the way of the future, but is hoping to tap into sensitivities around mail delivery to galvanize public support in the same way it had some success rallying against the closing of post offices during the 1990s.

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Larry Miller, the Conservative MP for the Ontario riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, spoke in 2011 about being "inundated" with complaints during rotating strikes that year. In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Miller said he expects to hear concern about cuts, but also an understanding that changes are necessary.

"There's going to be some [reaction] from both sides of the equation," he said. "Obviously, when people lose a service that they already have, nobody adapts to change very well. It's just human nature."

Mr. Miller said he has also heard concerns lately from people who do not want their tax dollars used to deal with deficits at Canada Post for services they rarely use. With the Conference Board of Canada warning that Canada Post's deficits could reach a billion dollars a year, Conservatives will counter complaints with an economic message.

"Nobody will want to [use the community mailbox]," he said. "Nobody likes this, but I think seniors will be the first ones to recognize that they shouldn't have to subsidize Canada Post either if they're not using it to the same extent somebody else is down the road."

Still, advocates for seniors and the disabled caution that not everyone can get to a community mailbox – especially in the winter – and paying bills online is not always an option.

"There is a digital divide in this country," said Laurie Beachell, national co-ordinator of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. "People who are poor, living on social assistance in particular, do not have computers, do not have internet servers."

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The seniors advocacy group CARP also weighed in, saying that it would have been better to cut back on the number of days of home delivery, rather than replace all home delivery with community mailboxes.

With a report from Barrie McKenna

Bill Curry covers finance in Ottawa.

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