EMAIL mj.morris@live.ca


Friday, December 4, 2009

Closing post offices in rural Canada is turning back the clock move

NOTE: While the focus of this article is the post office in Chapleau, Ontario, it is an issue facing many communities in rural Canada today as post offices are being closed. I invite your comments at mj.morris@live.ca

For almost 60 years now the Federal Building in Chapleau, commonly referred to as "the post office" has been a focal point of community life, a daily meeting place for citizens to not only pick up and send out mail, but to pass the time of day with friends and neighbours. In reality the post office is the centre of Chapleau, and to read in the Chapleau Express that it may be closed, bothered me immensely, even though I have not lived there for more than 20 years.

I believe that I speak for many of us who have moved from Chapleau, but still consider it home that the post office is much more than the handling of the mail in a small town, with all respect to the people who work there. It is the heart and soul of the community, the daily meeting place, if you will, and all efforts must be made to convince Canada Post and the federal government that it must stay open. I sure lend my voice to the efforts to keep the Chapleau post office right where it is!

Just prior to World War II plans had been made to undertake a federal building in Chapleau at the corner of Birch and Lorne streets and I recall as a youngster that the site had been excavated but nothing happened until 1949. In the 1920s my grandfather George Hunt had a jewelry and watch repair business on the site. I recall telling people as a youngster when we would walk by the partially excavated site in the 1940s, "My grandfather's store used to be there."

Let me turn back the clock for a moment to 1885 when the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived and Chapleau was created as a divisional point out of the wilderness of Northern Ontario. For help in putting it all into perspective for you, I turned to my cousin Michael McMullen, who has written a family history of William and May (Mulligan) McMullen, his grandparents and my great aunt and uncle. My grandmother Lil (Mulligan) Morris and his grandmother were sisters.

Our family was very much involved in the early days of the Chapleau post office with two members having held the position of postmaster.

The first post office in Chapleau was established in the store of T.A. Austin who was the first postmaster from 1886 to 1890. He was followed in the position by J.M Austin, from 1890 to 1892 and then by H. Nicholson from 1892 to 1896. The post office was housed in various locations during this time in stores.

According to Michael's family history, Patrick A. Mulligan, our great-great uncle arrived in Chapleau in late 1885, and built a store called Murrays and Mulligan at the northwest corner of Birch and Young Streets which opened in 1886. He became Chapleau's fourth postmaster in 1896 and served until 1913. Michael noted that while serving as postmaster Patrick Mulligan built a small post office which became part of the Boston Cafe.

William McMullen, Michael's grandfather, arrived in Chapleau in 1898 and worked for the CPR whose employ he left in 1913 to become Chapleau's fifth postmaster following the death of Patrick Mulligan, his wife May's uncle, who had served for 17 years. William was postmaster until mid-1918 when he returned to the CPR and Mrs. George Collinson, the assistant postmaster took over until her husband took over the position upon his return from serving in Canadian forces overseas in World War I. Mr. Collinson was postmaster until 1955 when he retired.

One other location for the post office was in an Austin and Nicholson store on Birch Street. In 1927 the post office moved to a red brick building at 14 Young Street where it remained until the new federal building was opened in 1950. This building was originally a branch of the Traders Bank established in Chapleau in 1909 which amalgamated with the Royal Bank of Canada in 1910, giving RBC a presence in Chapleau for 100 years.

The Chapleau Post of May 5, 1949, reported that Hill Clarke and Francis had been given a contract for the construction of a federal building in Chapleau which J.O. (Ovide) Cote, the secretary treasurer of the Chapleau Liberal Association unofficially confirmed. It was to be built at a total cost of $165,000 and would have the post office on ground floor and department of Indian Affairs office upstairs. At the time much credit was given to Lester B. Pearson, the member of parliament for Algoma East. Mr. Pearson later became prime minister of Canada.

Opened in 1950, a really modern building for the time, the post office, quickly became an important part of daily community life, as it remains so today. It is also a federal heritage building. Ironically perhaps, in the 21st century the powers that be are putting post offices back in retail stores where they were more than 100 years ago. However, in communities like Chapleau, to close it means that a sense of place is lost that is vital for the citizens and all the number crunchers and politicians in the land will never replace it. Turning back the clock is not the answer.

My sincere thanks to Michael McMullen for providing the historical content for this column. The opinions expressed are mine. My email is mj.morris@live.ca

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Michael J Morris

Michael J Morris
MJ with Buckwheat (1989-2009) Photo by Leo Ouimet


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