System to resurrect 'dead letters' barely surviving - New Canadian Media
Most of Canada Post’s processing centres and delivery units redirect items mailed without valid sender or receiver information to a Scarborough facility, one of the last of its kind. Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels.

System to resurrect ‘dead letters’ barely surviving

The art of letter writing may be dying even as Canada Post faces financial challenges. But one of its most archaic services once know as Dead Letter Offices is fighting for its survival. NCM's Gita Abraham reports.

Though GPS tracking systems, drones, satellites and various digital gizmos have taken over mail delivery, hand-delivered mail — or snail-mail, as it’s commonly known — remains a cornerstone of correspondence, particularly among immigrants.

This explains why a corner of the Undeliverable Mail Office (UMO) in Scarborough, Ontario still goes through painstaking efforts to reunite undelivered, and often undeliverable, packages and letters with their destinations or at least back to their senders.

Most of Canada Post’s processing centres and delivery units redirect items mailed without valid sender or receiver information to Scarborough’s UMO, one of the last of its kind.

There, the ‘dead mail’ is worked on for resuscitation. All possible avenues are taken to track the senders when their package fails to reach its intended destination, at which time they are declared dead, as Doug Jones, senior vice-president of operations explained. This can mean a number of things such as illegible handwriting, incomplete addresses, wrong postal codes, torn address labels and poor packaging. Sometimes, it may come down to a language barrier. (The UMO transcribes addresses in 39 languages, including Braille.)

Yet, at a time when evolving digital technologies have hijacked the postal system, Canada Post’s beleaguered efforts to keep its UMOs alive — or Dead Letter Offices, as they were originally known — are nearing their own expiration date. 

Carrying the load

UMOs began as Dead Letter Offices (DLOs) around the 1870s. There was a time this unique service, run by the 154-year-old Canada Post, was offered at various stations across the country. Sadly, today, the branches dealing with dead letters have no official presence and their numbers have dwindled to almost nil. Scarborough, it seems, is carrying the load.

However, even today, a public opinion research by Canada Post shows that Canadians are emotionally attached to hand-delivered letters and packages including personal letters, parcels, greeting and holiday cards. According to Canada Post 2016 report, eight in 10 businesses, or 81 per cent, agree that Canada Post provides good value for the cost, and 75 per cent agree that it’s still the most secure way to send and receive letters. Six in 10 (61 per cent) selected reliability as most important when mailing a letter. 

“Canadian habits of using mail have evolved greatly since 2006,” according to a Canada Post spokesperson.

“In 2020, Canada Post processed 6.2 billion items and delivered them to 16.7 million addresses in all corners of the country.”

According to Canada Post, Canadians’ mail habits have also greatly evolved since 2006.

“In 2020, we delivered 2.5 billion pieces of mail, which is 2.8 billion pieces (or 53 per cent) less than we did in the peak year of 2006,” the spokesperson told New Canadian Media.  

According to its website, Canada Post claims a delivery success rate of 96 per cent. Of course, this means there are four per cent that don’t get delivered.

Enter Dead Letter Offices.

Reaching home

Requests for relevant material and statistics about dead letters were not forthcoming officially. However, Canada Post stated that, generally, the senders and receivers of ‘dead letters’ were mostly immigrants who used this service to try to reach home. 

When the first immigrants began to arrive in Canada, mostly from China and India, without availability of a permanent address, lost mail was tracked by these DLOs, which tried to get the letters back to their owners. 

There are no statistics available as to who sends non-deliverable mail to Canada. Most letters are presumed to be for students who studying away from their motherland or in search of jobs and not yet settled. The contents of the covers and letters are never known until opened on authorization from designated officials. They are then returned to their mother countries, if possible. 

There was a time retrieval tactics were arduously applied in the killing fields as well. The Second World War had a huge impact on mail delivery systems with so many people traversing the globe, many lost or killed in the process, and mail being suspended from circulating to and from Canada. 

At a crossroads

Despite the statistics that speaks for its achievements, Canada Post is at a crossroads as its costs are growing faster than its revenues

And still, today, Dead Letter Offices continue to help a granddaughter reach her grandpa even without an address or a stamp or postal code. 

“This particular letter made it from British Columbia to Prince Edward Island,” said the Canada Post spokesperson. Another case was also recently ‘solved’ which saw a fan’s letter to the Great Big Sea Singer reach him at his St. John’s home. 

Clearly, even as funeral bugles begin to play, UMOs have yet to be given their marching orders.

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Freelance journalist, Author at Self employed

Gita Abraham is a journalist of 45-year standing and has worked in national dallies and magazines in New Delhi including  Hindustan Times and India Today. For 15 years she was the Feature Editor of  The City TAB in Bangalore. She was also  a Professor of Journalism, at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. Treading the thin line between fact and fiction, Gita has  launched her debut novel “Daughter of the Blue Hills”   early this year.  She  and her husband are snowbirds shuffling between Chennai and Ottawa. She has two daughters and two frisky grandsons who inhabit her world.

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