Canada has a fairly complex postal history as many of what became its various provinces had established postal services and issued their own stamps prior to Confederation. I will deal with each of those individually and focus this article on that which concerns the original Colony/Province of Canada as well as the current North American nation. The name “Canada” is accepted as coming from the St. Lawrence Iroquoian word kanata, meaning “village” or “settlement”. In 1535, indigenous inhabitants of the present-day Quebec City region used the word to direct French explorer Jacques Cartier to the village of Stadacona. Cartier later used the word Canada to refer not only to that particular village, but the entire area subject to Donnacona (the chief at Stadacona); by 1545, European books and maps had begun referring to this small region along the St Lawrence River as Canada.
Today, Canada’s ten provinces and three territories extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific and northward into the Arctic Ocean, covering 3.85 million square miles (9.98 million square kilometers), making it the world’s second-largest country by total area and the fourth-largest country by land area. Canada’s border with the United States is the world’s longest land border. The majority of the country has a cold or severely cold winter climate, but southerly areas are warm in summer. Canada is sparsely populated, the majority of its land territory being dominated by forest and tundra and the Rocky Mountains. About four-fifths of the country’s population of 36 million people is urbanized and live near the southern border. Its capital is Ottawa, its largest metropolis is Toronto; other major urban areas include Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Quebec City, Winnipeg and Hamilton.
Canada has been inhabited for millennia. Aboriginal peoples in present-day Canada include the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis, the latter being a mixed-blood people who originated in the mid-seventeenth century when First Nations and Inuit people married European settlers. The first inhabitants of North America migrated from Siberia by way of the Bering land bridge and arrived at least 15,000 years ago, though increasing evidence suggests an even earlier arrival. The characteristics of Canadian Aboriginal societies included permanent settlements, agriculture, complex societal hierarchies, and trading networks. Some of these cultures had collapsed by the time European explorers arrived in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and have only been discovered through archaeological excavations.
The Aboriginal population at the time of the first European settlements is estimated to have been approximately 500,000 people, a figure accepted by Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. As a consequence of contact with European diseases, Canada’s Aboriginal peoples suffered from repeated outbreaks of newly introduced infectious diseases, such as influenza, measles, and smallpox (to which they had no natural immunity), resulting in a forty to eighty percent population decrease in the centuries after the European arrival. Although not without conflict, European Canadians’ early interactions with First Nations and Inuit populations were relatively peaceful. The Crown and Aboriginal peoples began interactions during the European colonization period, though, the Inuit, in general, had more limited interaction with European settlers. From the late eighteenth century, European Canadians encouraged Aboriginals to assimilate into their own culture. These attempts reached a climax in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with forced integration and relocations. A period of redress is underway, which started with the appointment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada by the Canadian government.
The first known attempt at European colonization began when Norsemen settled briefly at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland around 1000 AD. No further European exploration occurred until 1497, when Italian seafarer John Cabot explored and claimed Canada’s Atlantic coast in the name of King Henry VII of England. Basque and Portuguese mariners established seasonal whaling and fishing outposts along the Atlantic coast in the early sixteenth century.
The earliest record of what became St. John’s, Newfoundland, appears as São João on a Portuguese map by Pedro Reinel in 1519. English mariner John Rut visited St. John’s in 1527 during an expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. On August 3, 1527, Rut wrote a letter to King Henry VIII on the findings of his voyage; this was the first known letter sent from North America. The letter in part reads as follows:
“...the third day of August we entered into a good harbour called St. John and there we found Eleuen Saile of Normans and one Brittaine and two Portugal barks all a fishing and so we are ready to depart towards Cap de Bras that is 25 leagues as shortly as we have fished and so along the Coast until we may meete with our fellowe and so with all diligence that lyes in me toward parts to that Ilands that we are command at our departing and thus Jesu save and keepe you Honourable Grace and all your Honourable Reuer. In the Haven of St. John the third day of August written in hast 1527, by your servant John Rut to his uttermost of his power.”
In 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier explored the Saint Lawrence River, where, on July 24, he planted a 33-foot (10-meter) cross bearing the words “Long Live the King of France” and took possession of the territory (known as the colony of Canada) in the name of King Francis I. In general the settlements appear to have been short-lived, possibly due to the similarity of outputs producible in Scandinavia and northern Canada and the problems of navigating trade routes at that time. From the sixteenth to the early eighteenth century, “Canada” referred to the part of New France that lay along the St. Lawrence River.
In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, by the royal prerogative of Queen Elizabeth I, founded St. John’s, Newfoundland, as the first North American English colony. French explorer Samuel de Champlain arrived in 1603 and established the first permanent European settlements at Port Royal (in 1605) and Quebec City (in 1608). Among the colonists of New France, Canadiens extensively settled the Saint Lawrence River valley and Acadians settled the present-day Maritimes, while fur traders and Catholic missionaries explored the Great Lakes, Hudson Bay, and the Mississippi watershed to Louisiana. The Beaver Wars broke out in the mid-seventeenth century over control of the North American fur trade.
The English established additional colonies in Cupids and Ferryland, Newfoundland, beginning in 1610. The Thirteen Colonies to the south were founded soon after. A series of four wars erupted in colonial North America between 1689 and 1763; the later wars of the period constituted the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War. Mainland Nova Scotia came under British rule with the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.
The earliest reference to a postal service in New France is in 1705 — the “first courier” Pedro da Silva, carrying the Governor’s dispatches by boat, along with (for a fee) private letters. He was Portuguese born and was known as Le Portugais (French for The Portuguese). Pedro da Silva is known to have arrived in New France prior to 1673, having worked there as a common courier. Later on he is known to have relocated to Sault-au-Matelot (Québec City’s lower town) and involved himself in the shipping of goods in the colony (by boat and cart). There is proof that in July 1693, Silva was paid 20 sols to take a package of letters from Montréal to Québec City. In 1705, he was commissioned by the (co)-Intendant of New France, Jacques Raudot, as the “first courier” in New France. Pedro da Silva was honored on a Canadian stamp released in June 2003 (Scott #1988).
A regular postal system was proposed in 1721, but would have been too expensive at the time, and was not created until 1734, when a road existed between Montreal and Quebec. Post houses were established at intervals of nine miles (14 kilometers) or so, along with ferries across the rivers. Fees were 10 sols between the two major cities, and 5 sols to Trois-Rivières, Quebec. The British captured Montreal in 1760, and shortly thereafter established a military postal system that handled letters between Quebec and Montreal, and from Montreal to Albany, New York.
The 1763 Treaty of Paris ceded Canada and most of New France to Britain after the Seven Years’ War. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 created the Province of Quebec out of New France, and annexed Cape Breton Island to Nova Scotia. The development of a civilian post was also inaugurated at this time. The Postmasters General of the American colonies, Benjamin Franklin and William Foxcroft surveyed a route between New York and Quebec, and contracted Quebec-Montreal mail to a Hugh Finlay, who provided a weekly service at 8 pence per letter. Mail to New York took two weeks and cost about a shilling. The service was quite successful, the Quebec-Montreal route increasing to twice per week, and eventually branching out to include Skenesborough. Postmarks were used starting in 1764, Finlay having been introduced to them by Franklin. The earliest markings were town names in a straight line. As is typical of the period, the postal service introduced ever-more-complicated systems of rates for mail, depending on destination and distance.
St. John’s Island (now Prince Edward Island) became a separate colony in 1769. To avert conflict in Quebec, the British parliament passed the Quebec Act of 1774, expanding Quebec’s territory to the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley. It re-established the French language, Catholic faith, and French civil law there. This angered many residents of the Thirteen Colonies, fueling anti-British sentiment in the years prior to the 1775 outbreak of the American Revolution.
The American Revolutionary War disrupted mail to New York, and also showed the weakness in not having an all-British route to Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1787 a complicated route was set up through Riviere du Loup, Fredericton, Digby, and Annapolis. Upper Canada had its own semi-monthly route through Kingston, Niagara, Detroit, and as far as Michilimackinac on Lake Huron.
The 1783 Treaty of Paris recognized American independence and ceded the newly added territories south (but not north) of the Great Lakes to the new United States. New Brunswick was split from Nova Scotia as part of a reorganization of Loyalist settlements in the Maritimes.
In 1784, Canada was given its own Postmaster General with Hugh Finlay awarded the appointment. A regular overland service was established between Halifax (Nova Scotia) and Quebec. In 1791, there were only eleven post offices, including Detroit and Machilimackinac, transferred to the United States in 1796.
To accommodate English-speaking Loyalists in Quebec, the Constitutional Act of 1791 divided the province into French-speaking Lower Canada (later Quebec) and English-speaking Upper Canada (later Ontario), granting each its own elected legislative assembly. These were collectively named The Canadas.
Hugh Finlay was succeeded in 1800 by George Heriot, then in 1816 Daniel Sutherland took over as Postmaster General. By this time dozens of post offices were being opened. 1816 was also when the postal services of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia were separated, and not rejoined until 1868. Stage coaches (from 1808) and steamboats (from 1809) replaced couriers as the extension of postal services matched widespread government-sponsored immigration from Britain. There were over 960,000 arrivals from Britain between 1815 and 1850. New arrivals included Irish refugees escaping the Great Irish Famine as well as Gaelic-speaking Scots displaced by the Highland Clearances. Infectious diseases killed between 25 and 33 per cent of Europeans who immigrated to Canada before 1891.
The Canadas were the main front in the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain. Peace came in 1815; no boundaries were changed. By 1828, there were 151 post offices. Standardized handstamps were introduced in 1829.
The desire for responsible government resulted in the abortive Rebellions of 1837. The Durham Report subsequently recommended responsible government and the assimilation of French Canadians into English culture. The Act of Union 1840 merged The Canadas into the British Province of Canada in 1841 Responsible government was established for all provinces of British North America by 1849. The signing of the Oregon Treaty by Britain and the United States in 1846 ended the Oregon boundary dispute, extending the border westward along the 49th parallel. This paved the way for British colonies on Vancouver Island (1849) and in British Columbia (1858).
In 1840, Rowland Hill proposed a uniform rate for Great Britain that could be prepaid by postage stamps, and on May 25, 1849, the Legislative Assembly of Canada resolved to adopt the use of stamps in the Province of Canada. The Province of Canada began issuing stamps on April 23, 1851. The first were in the values of 3 pence, 6 pence, and 12 pence. Designed by Sir Sandford Fleming, the Threepenny Beaver depicted a beaver in an oval frame, and is considered the first Canadian postage stamp. It was the first official postage stamp in the world to picture an animal, though an unofficial postmaster’s provisional from St. Louis, Missouri, showed two bears in 1845. The 6 penny was a portrait of Prince Albert from a drawing by William Drummond. The 12 penny (1 shilling) was reproduced from a full-length painting of Queen Victoria done by Alfred Edward Chalon. All three stamps were produced by the firm of Rawdon, Wright, Hatch and Edson of New York.
In April 1851, the rate for inland letters to Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island was 3 pence per ½ ounce. Letters to the USA was 6d per ½ oz, excluding California and Oregon, which was 9d per ½ oz. The first issues were made on laid paper, which did not stick as well to envelopes; thus in 1852 the printers switched to wove paper. All of these early stamps were imperforate issues. These earliest issues on laid paper are quite rare; a grand total of only 1,450 copies of the 12d were ever issued. Copies today, depending on their condition, may sell for US $50,000 or more.
Between 1852 and 1857, the postal service came out with new values: ½ penny, 7½ pence, and 10 pence, while removing the 12 pence. The first two depicted Victoria and the 10d featured a portrait of Jacques Cartier. The 7½d was unusual in that it was also denominated “6 Pence Sterling”. In 1858, the first perforated stamps were issued in ½ penny, 3 penny and 6 penny values, depicting Queen Victoria, a beaver and HRH Prince Albert.
In 1859, the province standardized on a single decimal monetary system, which also meant new stamps would be needed. In 1859, the American Bank Note Company of New York produced six new stamps in denominations of 1 cent, 5 cents, (two) 10 cents, 12½ cents, and 17 cents with an additional 2 cent value issued in 1864. In general, the existing designs were used. These were the last stamps produced for the Province of Canada.
Following several constitutional conferences, the 1867 Constitution Act officially proclaimed Canadian Confederation on July 1, 1867, initially with four provinces: Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. Upon Confederation, Canada was adopted as the legal name for the new country, and the word Dominion was conferred as the country’s title. Canada assumed control of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory to form the Northwest Territories, where the Métis’ grievances ignited the Red River Rebellion and the creation of the province of Manitoba in July 1870. British Columbia and Vancouver Island (which had been united in 1866) joined the confederation in 1871, while Prince Edward Island joined in 1873. British Columbia remained cut off geographically overland until the railway link was forged in 1886.
The new government issued a series of stamps on April 1, 1868, superseding all previous issues. These featured a profile of Queen Victoria, based on an engraving by Charles Henry Jeens and became known to philatelists as the “Large Queens”. They ranged in value from ½ cent to 15 cents. While mostly printed on wove paper, a few of the 1 cent, 2 cent, and 3 cent values were also printed on laid paper; only three examples of the Canada 2 cent Large Queen on laid paper are known, making it Canada’s rarest stamp.
Except for the 15 cent value which was in use as late as 1897, the Large Queens had a relatively short life, being replaced in 1870 by the “Small Queens”, smaller stamps of the same basic design, adopted to be able to produce more stamps more quickly. The Small Queens came in a number of printings between 1870 and 1897. In 1893 20 cent and 50 cent stamps came out with a 3/4 portrait of Victoria.
When Prince Edward Island became a Canadian province in 1873, it sold off all of its remaining pre-Canadian stamps at discounted prices, flooding the market with over 1.5 million cheap stamps. Since these stamps had next to no value, forgers had no compelling reason to make copies. Today, since forged versions of Prince Edward Island stamps are harder to find than the original, the forgeries are more valuable. Library and Archives Canada holds a forged, lithographed version of a stamp from 1870 that features an engraving of Queen Victoria.
In 1897 the American Bank Note Company secured the contract to print stamps for Canada, which lasted until 1923. The company’s first job was to print a series for the Diamond Jubilee celebrating the 60th year of Queen Victoria and the 30th year of confederation, the first commemorative stamps of Canada. The design was a side-by-side of the Chalon vignette of the young Victoria and the likeness photographed by Alexander Bassano in 1887. The series included sixteen denominations ranging from ½ cent to five dollars, a princely sum in those days, and more aimed at collectors than mailers. Only 9,937 of the $4 value were ever sold, and unsurprisingly they are rare and expensive today.
The Maple Leaf Issue was also released in 1897 — definitive stamps with the central design based on a Jubilee portrait for Victoria, with maple leaves in each corner. It was in use for only a few months before being replaced by a modified design that replaced the lower leaves with numerals of value, motivated by the French-speaking population who found it difficult to read the textual denomination on the original design. (The Universal Postal Union would require the use of Arabic numerals in 1907.)
In 1898, a first step towards Imperial Penny Postage happened when a number of Dominions agreed on a uniform rate of 1 penny (2¢ in Canada). Canada issued an interesting stamp depicting a map of the entire world, with British possessions marked in red, inscribed XMAS 1898 (the rate took effect on Christmas Day), and WE HOLD A VASTER EMPIRE THAN HAS BEEN underneath, a line extracted from “A Song of Empire” composed by Sir Lewis Morris in 1887. The stamp was notable as the first multi-color stamp of Canada, and also for the tremendous variability of the red highlighting, resulting in amusing geographical incongruities.
During the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush in the Northwest Territories, parliament created the Yukon Territory. The Cabinet of Liberal Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier fostered continental European immigrants settling the prairies and Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces in 1905.
Because Britain still maintained control of Canada’s foreign affairs under the Confederation Act, its declaration of war in 1914 automatically brought Canada into World War I. Volunteers sent to the Western Front later became part of the Canadian Corps, which played a substantial role in the Battle of Vimy Ridge and other major engagements of the war. Out of approximately 625,000 Canadians who served in World War I, some 60,000 were killed and another 172,000 were wounded. The Conscription Crisis of 1917 erupted when the Unionist Cabinet’s proposal to augment the military’s dwindling number of active members with conscription was met with vehement objections from French-speaking Quebecers. The Military Service Act brought in compulsory military service, though, it, coupled with disputes over French language schools outside Quebec, deeply alienated Francophone Canadians and temporarily split the Liberal Party. In 1919, Canada joined the League of Nations independently of Britain. The country achieved near total independence from the United Kingdom with the Statute of Westminster in 1931.
The Great Depression in Canada during the early 1930s saw an economic downturn, leading to hardship across the country. In response to the downturn, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in Saskatchewan introduced many elements of a welfare state in the 1940s and 1950s.
On the advice of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, war with Germany was declared effective September 10, 1939 by King George VI, seven days after the United Kingdom. The delay underscored Canada’s independence. The first Canadian Army units arrived in Britain in December 1939. In all, over a million Canadians served in the armed forces during World War II and approximately 42,000 were killed and another 55,000 were wounded. Canadian troops played important roles in many key battles of the war, including the failed 1942 Dieppe Raid, the Allied invasion of Italy, the Normandy landings, the Battle of Normandy, and the Battle of the Scheldt in 1944. Canada provided asylum for the Dutch monarchy while that country was occupied and is credited by the Netherlands for major contributions to its liberation from Nazi Germany. The Canadian economy boomed during the war as its industries manufactured military materiel for Canada, Britain, China, and the Soviet Union. Despite another Conscription Crisis in Quebec in 1944, Canada finished the war with a large army and strong economy.
The financial crisis of the great depression had led the Dominion of Newfoundland to relinquish responsible government in 1934 and become a crown colony ruled by a British governor. After two bitter referendums, Newfoundlanders voted to join Canada in 1949 as a province.
Canada’s post-war economic growth, combined with the policies of successive Liberal governments, led to the emergence of a new Canadian identity, marked by the adoption of the current Maple Leaf Flag in 1965, the implementation of official bilingualism (English and French) in 1969, and the institution of official multiculturalism in 1971. Socially democratic programs were also instituted, such as Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, and Canada Student Loans, though provincial governments, particularly Quebec and Alberta, opposed many of these as incursions into their jurisdictions.
Full sovereignty was attained when the Canada Act 1982 removed the last remaining ties of legal dependence on the Parliament of the United Kingdom, removing the use of Dominion concurrent with the creation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which refers to the country only as Canada. Later that year, the name of national holiday was changed from Dominion Day to Canada Day.
In 1999, Nunavut became Canada’s third territory after a series of negotiations with the federal government. At the same time, Quebec underwent profound social and economic changes through the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, giving birth to a modern nationalist movement. The radical Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) ignited the October Crisis with a series of bombings and kidnappings in 1970 and the sovereignist Parti Québécois was elected in 1976, organizing an unsuccessful referendum on sovereignty-association in 1980. Attempts to accommodate Quebec nationalism constitutionally through the Meech Lake Accord failed in 1990. This led to the formation of the Bloc Québécois in Quebec and the invigoration of the Reform Party of Canada in the West. A second referendum followed in 1995, in which sovereignty was rejected by a slimmer margin of 50.6 to 49.4 percent. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that unilateral secession by a province would be unconstitutional and the Clarity Act was passed by parliament, outlining the terms of a negotiated departure from Confederation.
In addition to the issues of Quebec sovereignty, a number of crises shook Canadian society in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These included the explosion of Air India Flight 182 in 1985, the largest mass murder in Canadian history; the École Polytechnique massacre in 1989, a university shooting targeting female students; and the Oka Crisis of 1990, the first of a number of violent confrontations between the government and Aboriginal groups. Canada also joined the Gulf War in 1990 as part of a United States-led coalition force and was active in several peacekeeping missions in the 1990s, including the UNPROFOR mission in the former Yugoslavia.
Canada sent troops to Afghanistan in 2001, but declined to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. In 2009, Canada’s economy suffered in the worldwide Great Recession, but it has since largely rebounded. In 2011, Canadian forces participated in the NATO-led intervention into the Libyan civil war, and also became involved in battling the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq in the mid-2010s.
Canada is a federal parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II being the head of state. The country is officially bilingual at the federal level. It is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse and multicultural nations, the product of large-scale immigration from many other countries. Its advanced economy is the eleventh largest in the world, relying chiefly upon its abundant natural resources and well-developed international trade networks. Canada’s long and complex relationship with the United States has had a significant impact on its economy and culture.
As a budding collector in the mid-1970’s, probably the first of my interests outside of the issues of the United States lay with the stamps of Canada. My first album was a gift of my mother’s childhood album which she’d kept while living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, during the Second World War. She lived across the road from the State Capitol Building and used to find numerous envelopes mailed from foreign countries in the trash at the capitol. This formed the basis of her collection and that album contained many of Canada’s definitive stamps from the first half of the twentieth century. Thus, I’ve had a long love-affair with collecting our northern neighbor’s issues. As so many of Canada’s stamps right up the the present-day have been attractively-designed with interesting subjects, it was difficult deciding which stamp to feature in today’s profile (if only I had a “Bluenose”…).
In the end, I chose the oldest stamp I currently own from Canada — Scott #15. This bears the same basic design as Canada’s first stamp, the Threepenny Beaver of 1851, but with a change in denomination to 5 pence, perforations (in a gauge of 12) rather than imperforate, a slight change in color from red to vermilion, and a better impression from the engraving having been printed by the American Bank Note Company in New York. Scott #15 was issued in 1859.