The first air mail flight in Canada was from Montreal to Toronto on June 24th 1918. It was made by Captain Brian Peck from the Royal Air Force training school at Leaside, outside Toronto, and was planned as part of a publicity event to encourage wartime recruitment. Approximately 125 covers were carried, and given a special cancellation as shown below. This was followed by some 20 more mail carrying flights over the next five years, made by a variety of individuals and organizations. The amount of mail carried on each of these flights was small, and while most Canadian air mail covers are relatively affordable, these pioneer covers tend to be rare and expensive.
Canadian Air Mail Routes – 1940.
Figure 2: Peck
Figure 3: Laurentide
Semi-Official Air Mail Flights
During the 1920’s, a number of companies began flying into remote Northern areas of Canada, often in support of prospectors and miners. The Post Office allowed these companies to charge for the letters they carried, and to issue their own stamps. These stamps had a “semi-official” status, as they were sold from post offices, but the Post Office did not assume responsibility for the airmail, or help with the cost of the service. At first they could only be placed on the back of an envelope, and were not allowed to show a value in case they were confused with regular postage stamps. These restrictions were later relaxed.
The first of these services was operated by Laurentide Air Services in 1924 from Lake Timiskaming to the Rouyn goldfields. Flights were made in war surplus HS-2L flying boats, and took an hour each way. They replaced a water trip that required four different boats due to portages, and took approximately two days.
Figure 4: Rimouski
First Canadian Government Air Mail Flights
The Post Office first budgeted money for airmail services in 1927.
The first of the services funded by the Post Office began in September 1927. It received mail from incoming steamers at Rimouski, where the St. Lawrence river pilot boarded ships, and flew it to Montreal in order to speed up mail from Europe to Canada. The service also flew late mail from Montreal to Rimouski, where it was transferred to steamers going to England. The service operated once a week until November, and resumed each summer until 1938.
In October 1927 the Post Office also began paying for airmail service to some remote locations, which were often cut off during the winter. Initially no extra charge was made for airmail on any of these services.
Figure 5: CNE
First Flight Covers as popular collectibles
The 1920’s were a time of great interest in everything to do with aviation. They were also a time when stamp collecting was a very popular hobby.
In August 1928, the Canadian National Exhibition decided to organize an air show, as part of the celebrations for its 50th Anniversary. The events included special flights carrying mail to Toronto, one from Windsor, and another from Quebec City, on the opening day of the air show. A fee of 5 cents was charged for each envelope carried on these flights, compared to the normal cost of 2 cents to send a letter at that time. In return for this fee, a commemorative cachet was applied to each envelope carried. The response was terrific! Over 30,000 pieces of mail were carried on the opening day flights, and more than 27,000 on the return flights from Toronto to Windsor and Quebec City at the end of the air show.
After this, the Post Office offered a commemorative cachet each time it inaugurated a new airmail service, and also for some special events.
Figure 6: Albany
On October 1st 1928, the Post Office inaugurated an airmail service between Montreal and Albany, which connected with an overnight train to New York City.
On this date the Post Office also began to charge a higher fee for some airmail services. – Services were now divided into two types: AIR MAIL SERVICES, which offered faster delivery of mail on payment of a higher fee, and AIR STAGE SERVICES, which used aircraft to carry mail to and from isolated communities. Mail was normally flown on Air Stage services at regular postal rates, but if a collector wanted a special First Flight cachet, they had to pay the higher Air Mail postage rate.
The Post Office would send out details of future First Flights to collectors. The flights were also announced in newspapers, and in stamp magazines. Covers were to be sent to a designated post office near the start of the flight to receive the cachet, and were then held until the flight. After the flight, covers were normally backstamped to show that they’d been flown. They were then sent on to the address on the cover. – Collectors were supposed to put their own address on the covers, so that it was easy to forward them. However, this sometimes led to covers like the one above, which looked like they had been sent in the wrong direction. Some collectors therefore addressed their covers to the end of the flight, and wrote a return address elsewhere on the cover.
Figure 7: Aklavik
In August 1929 the Post Office announced the inauguration of airmail service along the Mackenzie River from Fort McMurray to Aklavik, north of the Arctic Circle. There would be 12 intermediate stops, and the Post Office offered a separate cachet for service between Fort McMurray and each of the stops.
Aklavik had grown up around a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, and become the administrative, medical, and religious centre of the region. It was also the Western Arctic headquarters of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but by 1930 it’s population was only about 400. Before the introduction of airmail, communication with the rest of Canada was by steamer along the Mackenzie River in summer, and by dogsled along the frozen river in winter.
In 1929, there was not only great interest in aviation and stamp collecting, but there was also considerable excitement regarding anything to do with the Arctic. The result of these three factors was that by the end of October, the Post Office in Edmonton had received about 120,000 covers to be carried on the inaugural flights! These weighed over 7 tons, and was far more mail than had been expected. Commercial Airways Ltd., which had been awarded the contract for the service, had to acquire three additional aircraft for the inaugural flights.
On November 26th the mail was sent by rail to Fort McMurray, which was the northern terminus of the railway from Edmonton. Starting on December 10th, a team of four aircraft and six pilots began shuttling mail on the 1,676 mile route north. Some aircraft carried mail as far north as possible, while others took the cancelled mail south, and returned with mail for more northern points. The first flight reached Aklavik on December 27th, having overcome very severe weather. On Christmas Day the temperature dropping to -60° overnight, and it was -44°F when the aircraft had to be started and take off the next morning.
Figure 8: 1939
In 1932, as the Depression deepened, the Government cancelled most of the AIR MAIL contracts! According to Prime Minister R.B. Bennett: “With 300,000 of the population receiving some form of relief, there was very little gratification in seeing an aeroplane passing by day after day when the unfortunate owner of the soil could hardly see the aeroplane because his own crop had gone up in dust.”
However, the Post Office continued to inaugurate new AIR STAGE services to isolated communities during the 1930’s. Interest in aviation remained high throughout this period, and First Flight Covers continued to be popular.
By the end of the 1930’s, the Canadian Government showed a renewed interest in civil aviation. Trans-Canada Air Lines had been formed in 1937, and in February 1938 had begun operating a daily “ghost service” for training purposes, between Vancouver and Winnipeg. – On March 1st 1939, TCA inaugurated a daily air mail service between Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. To mark the occasion, the Post Office produced forty different First Flight cachets.
The network of airmail routes in operation by the end of 1939 is shown at the map at the start of this article. Many additional routes were inaugurated after 1939, but only occasionally did the Post Office produce First Flight cachets for them.
For more information
An easily available resource is Air Mail in Alberta , by Denny May. This is an excellent book that concentrates on covers from Alberta, but will provide a great introduction to Canadian airmail services in general. It is 55 pages with lots of illustrations, and is available on a CD, which minimizes postage charges. The CD costs $10.00 Canadian or US, including postage worldwide. Payment can be by PayPal (Denny will send an invoice), or by cheque or international money order, sent to: Denny May, 10326 145 St NW, Edmonton AB T5N 2X7, Canada. [Email: firstname.lastname@example.org ]
The standard reference for information on all Canadian air mail stamps and covers is The Air Mails of Canada and Newfoundland. (AMCN). – This was a joint production by the Canadian Aerophilatelic Society (CAS) and the American Air Mail Society (AAMS), and is generally considered very informative and easy to use. It contains the four digit numbers by which most Canadian Government Flight Covers are referred: the three digit numbers sometimes still found on covers, are from Volume 4 of the American Air Mail Catalogue (1981) which is long out of print. – AMCN can be purchased from some philatelic dealers, or ordered from either the AAMS, [see www.americanairmailsociety.org for more information], or the CAS [see www.aerophilately.ca].
Information on many different aspects of Canadian aerophilately is available on the Canadian Aerophilatelic Society’s website at www.aerophilately.ca . This includes an index to the CAS journal, The Canadian Aerophilatelist, in which you can find articles on many different flights, covers, and aerophilatelic topics. If you would like to be mailed a complimentary, sample copy of The Canadian Aerophilatelist just email the editor, Chris Hargreaves, at email@example.com