Canada Post's Deepak Chopra says seniors want exercise from picking up mail

The head of Canada Post says seniors have told the corporation they want more exercise and fresh air in answer to an MP's question about how the elderly will be especially hard hit by the cancellation of home mail delivery.

Deepak Chopra was answering questions put to him by MPs at a special emergency meeting of the transport committee Wednesday. Parliament has risen so most MPs are back in their ridings for a Christmas break and won't return until the end of January.

Chopra's suggestion that seniors would welcome the exercise offered by community mailboxes caused Liberal MP David McGuinty to make a quip about "mail Participaction," in reference to a past government public fitness campaign.

The committee also heard from witnesses from the postal workers' union, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Conference Board of Canada, the Council of Canadians with Disabilities,  the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and others.

Chopra said Canadians were widely consulted about changes and if they read newspapers and follow the media they shouldn't have been taken by surprise when the corporation announced it was raising stamp prices and cancelling door-to-door delivery. Chopra said 46 communities were consulted about losing daily mail service.

His claim that Canadians should have been aware major changes were coming didn't wash with NDP MP Paul Dewar, who angrily told Chopra that Canadians actually "didn't have a clue" about losing door-to-door delivery.

Canada Post announced last week it would phase out door-to-door mail delivery in urban areas and plans to raise the price of an individual stamp to $1.

After being asked several times by NDP MP Hoang Mai and Liberal MP David McGuinty about when the minister of transport knew about the proposed changes, Chopra said he informed Lisa Raitt on Monday of last week. The announcement of the cuts didn't come until two days later, on Wednesday.

Later, in a media scrum, reporters asked Chopra about the timing of the announcement and whether he'd promised the government to hold off until the House of Commons wasn't sitting. Chopra said the timing of the announcement was Canada Post's decision.

McGuinty suggested there were no questions from government about the changes because "it was [Prime Minister] Harper's plan, not yours."

Dewar asked Chopra several times about the amount of a bonus he received last year. Chopra kept repeating his pay was public knowledge until Dewar suggested his bonus was 33 per cent. This was at a time, Dewar pointed out, the post office was losing money.

Asked how the post office would accommodate people with disabilities, Chopra said extra mailbox keys would be given to people so others could pick up their mail, or the height of community mailboxes could be adjusted.

Chopra told Conservative MP Peter Braid that many other countries have been looking at expanding the use of parcel lockers.

Both Denis Lemelin of the postal workers' union, and Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University and an author of two books about Canada Post, pointed out Canada is the only country to completely eliminate door-to-door delivery. Campbell was speaking by video conference from Sackville, N.B.

John Anderson of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives suggested the post office could solve many of its financial problems by expanding into banking, a position strongly advocated by the postal workers' union. Anderson said post offices in the U.K., France and Switzerland have successful banking operations, adding that in aboriginal communities or in remote rural areas where bank branches have closed but post offices still exist, a real service could be provided.

The committee also heard from Dan Kelly, president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, also via video conference, who said the "massive letter mail rate hike" would have a significant impact on his members. He said his organization believes postal employees have wages and benefits 40 per cent higher than private sector workers, and said some members think postal workers should undergo a lengthy wage freeze.

On questioning from McGuinty, Kelly said the CFIB wasn't consulted by Canada Post about its changes. "We were in a big scramble when the announcement came out," he said, with calls from members upset about the stamp price hike.

Kelly also questioned the value of Canada Post keeping its monopoly on letter mail.

Chopra has said the post office received permission from the government to defer payments it is legally obligated to make in order to fix its pension solvency deficit of $6.5 billion. A solvency deficit means the post office could not pay out its pension commitments if every employee needed to be pensioned immediately.

Just as the three-hour committee meeting was about to end, former cabinet minister and now Conservative backbencher Gordon O'Connor noted that as of Dec. 31, 2012, the post office pension plan is fully funded on an ongoing concern basis which means, he said, "it currently is able to pay all benefits as they come due."

"Does the post office have a problem in funding their pension, or not?" he asked Benjamin Dachis of the C.D. Howe Institute.

Dachis responded that he couldn't get into "existential questions" about the proper way to fund future liabilities.

O'Connor also asked Kelly, "How are we going to put community mailboxes in cities where you have house after house with no space, store after store, with no space?"

Kelly replied, "It's not an option we love," referring to his members who have stores in cities. "Where is Canada Post going to find the space is a question I don't have a sweet clue how to answer."

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