Beside the long stretch of Highway 93 that leads south to the Roosville Border Crossing, there sits a small red cottage.
Grapevines wind up the sides of the building, a chimney puffs smoke from a wood stove, and cattle low in the distance. Soft laughter emanates from inside.
At first glance, the building, surrounded by farm fencing, looks like the home of a hardworking rancher. However, this building is much more than meets the eye; it serves as a gathering spot for Grasmere locals, and also happens to be the place they send and pick up their mail.
It also serves as the location from where mail and flyers from the United States are distributed throughout the South Country.
The Grasmere Post Office will close its doors for the final time on Oct. 31 due to the inability to reach an agreement between the owners of the building and Canada Post, a Crown corporation. This will serve as the fourth post office to close down in the rural Elk Valley and South Country in the past 20 years.
In the 1990s, Elko’s post office closed for good, forcing residents to travel to Jaffray to send a package. According to residents of Grasmere, the Baynes Lake and Galloway post offices also closed since then.
With the office in Grasmere soon closing, residents will be forced to travel to Jaffray, 44 kilometres away, or Fernie, 56 kilometres away, to send a package.
(Farmland in Grasmere. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press)
In a letter sent to residents of Grasmere Valley and Tobacco Plains on Oct. 7 by building owners Heath and Barbara Slee, the couple explained their decision to evict Canada Post from their premises.
The couple said they find themselves in a position where they are no longer able to continue to subsidize Canada Post and provide for its services such as snow removal, road and building maintenance that is included in their contract; all for a sum of $250 per month, which doesn’t cover their costs.
“We deeply regret having to take this action, however, with our insurance costs having increased by over a third and our commercial property taxes along with electricity, and maintenance, place us in an ongoing deficit,” the letter said.
“Canada Post refuses every attempt we have made to negotiate a fair and reasonable lease of our premises and regretfully, put us in this position.”
(The Grasmere Post Office. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press)
The Slee’s have hosted Canada Post in their building for the past two decades. They were asked to host the office after it burned down in its previous location; the general store. The Slee’s explained that although they were reluctant at the time, they took it over with the hope of preserving a valuable service to residents of Grasmere, Roosville, as well as the Tobacco Plains First Nation community.
At the time, Barbara ran a gift shop with antiques. The reluctance came after Canada Post offered her $59/month in rent, a wage of $13/hr as postmaster, and no funds to extend their building for the office. Three months after taking the job, her wage was lowered to $9/hr. She was able to work the rent up to $69, which eventually rose to $125 where it stayed for years. As costs of operation rose, Barbara negotiated for the rent to increase to $200.
Eventually when she wanted to retire, Barbara sought out a new postmaster and trained her for the new position. When the new postmaster took over last year, Barbara said the rent dropped back down to $99. She explained that after a long fight and negotiation, Canada Post raised the rent to $250.
“The Post Office is extremely important to me. In a small community, it’s a meeting point, it’s part of the social make up of the community – it’s very important,” said Barbara.
“It wasn’t so much about the money for me, as just to get enough to cover the overhead. I wasn’t out to make a killing on the rent, but I wanted to be reasonable.”
Once a year, Barbara would get a supplement of $600. This year, she was cut off, and was told she would no longer receive the extra funds. This, she said, made it as though they never raised the rent.
Further proposals to receive more funds from the corporation to cover their costs resulted in dead ends, or no response at all. Barbara said they were left with no choice but to evict them.
“It’s a sad state of affairs,” she said. “I really feel bad about it. I wanted to do everything to keep that post office in the valley. And of course I feel bad for the ladies that come in every Friday and have a little get together, and have coffee and tea, and then they go off again; it was happy. It was a happy place.”
It’s Friday morning and the community of Grasmere is shrouded in fog. Despite the still surroundings, traffic in and out of the post office is busy as usual. The local group of ladies sit around a coffee table in the corner, a group of men huddle around the wood stove and talk about happenings in the community. A man in a cowboy hat and boots delivers mail from the U.S. border. Some come for the coffee, others, their mail.
(Top, Terry Luke delivers flyers from Eureka. Above, Barbara Slee talks with locals about the imminent closure. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press)
In the corner the ladies converse about the imminent closure of the post office. Some referred to it as “disappointing” and others “sad”.
Walking around the building, Heath pointed proudly to the wall of 125 post boxes which he installed at the inception of the Grasmere Post Office, and spoke of other additions including counter space and storage for boxes, which they undertook at their own expense.
Receiving mail and being able to send packages, Heath said, is a right of every Canadian citizen. He referred to their current situation with Canada Post as a “convenient means” of discontinuing a service for rural communities.
In addition to losing a service and gathering place for residents, Heath said he’s concerned about what will happen to their building when their contract with Canada Post concludes at the end of this month. Heath said the removal of the mail boxes, currently filled from inside and accessible from the outside, could cause serious damage. He said they have not been informed as to how the repairs to their building will be undertaken.
(The Grasmere Post Office hosts about 125 post boxes. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press)
Heath, a past director for the Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK), challenged whichever party forms government in the Kootenay-Columbia to undertake a full review of Canada Post. He said he hopes for a future of solutions concerning lease agreements between Canada Post and landlords in rural communities.
Back inside, Heath sat beside the wood stove while conversation continued about how more action is needed by government.
(Heath Slee in the Grasmere Post Office. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press)
“We’re hearing during this election campaign a lot about how climate change is the number one issue, but to this community, the most important issue is retention of a service like this,” Heath said.
“And are these politicians, whoever gets in, whoever’s elected into office, are they willing to undertake a thorough review of a Crown corporation that is totally ignoring the wishes of a community, and is irresponsible in communicating with the very public that are paying the bills to keep them in existence?”
With regards to the eviction, Heath said he does not wish to lose postal services in their community, and regrets the disruption in service, but said he and his partner are not in a position to subsidize a Crown corporation.
In a response to a request for comment, a Canada Post spokesperson confirmed that the post office would close at the end of the month.
“Effective Thurs., Oct. 31, the Grasmere Post Office will close due to reasons beyond our control,” said the spokesperson.
The spokesperson added that while they do not disclose details of Canada Post contracts and agreements, they are currently looking for another business to host the Grasmere Post Office.
“We will notify customers once a decision has been made,” they said.