Places

Think fast: Canada Post‘s newest distribution warehouse

The new Albert Jackson Processing Centre has opened in Scarborough, Ont. and honours Toronto’s first Black letter carrier 

  • Jan 19, 2024
  • 764 words
  • 4 minutes
Inside the distribution warehouse. (Photo: Andrew Williamson Photography)
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As befits a state-of-the-art distribution warehouse, Canada Post’s vast new Albert Jackson Processing Centre, which opened this past fall in Scarborough, Ont., delivers a collection of breathtaking metrics: the $470-million plant is larger than six CFL football fields, contains eight kilometres of conveyer belts, has 155 loading bays and can handle a million parcels a day. It also has enough rooftop solar panels and internal electric vehicles that it’s a net-zero industrial building, the largest of its kind in Canada.

Given that it’s twice the size of Canada Post’s previous largest hub, the most remarkable detail is that a package can arrive, get processed and be ready for shipping in just four minutes. But while the massive new processing facility was built with an eye to Canada Post’s future, its name is an acknowledgement of the institution’s past. Albert Jackson, who was born in Delaware in 1857, became Canada’s first Black letter carrier, although attaining that position meant pushing back against the racist views of the postal workers of his era.

The distribution warehouse is as big as six CFL football fields. (Photo: Andrew Williamson Photography)
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Jackson’s mother, Ann Maria, fled slavery in the United States in 1858, just two years before the start of the Civil War, bringing seven of her nine children to St. Catharines, Ont., via the Underground Railroad, then on to Toronto. Albert was just a toddler at the time. Kevin Burtt, Canada Post’s general manager for operations in the Greater Toronto Area, describes Ann Maria Jackson as a “superhero” for the determination and the strength she had to maintain to “bring her children to a place of freedom.” 

In 1882, Jackson, then in his mid-20s, applied for a job as a letter carrier and managed to get hired. But when he turned up for work, the other letter carriers, all white, refused to work alongside him. In the 1880s, the number of civil service jobs was on the rise, including positions for letter carriers and fire fighters, but “Black men were often barred from being hired for these positions, and even from the trade union movement,” says Natasha Henry-Dixon, an assistant professor of history at York University and an authority on Black history in Ontario. At the time, she says, the Toronto Telegram, a newspaper considered to be the voice of the political right, ran a story about Jackson’s hiring, describing him as “an objectionable African” and questioning the decision to allow someone with his skin colour to serve in a public-facing position. Jackson’s manager instead assigned him to work in the sorting facility.

The Albert Jackson stamp was released in 2019 to coincide with Black History Month. (Image courtesy © Canada Post Corporation, 2019.)
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Toronto’s Black community, however, was well organized and had previously pushed back against other forms of racism in the city, such as the prevalence of minstrel shows in local theatres. Community leaders, working through a network anchored at the British Methodist Episcopal Church, a Black church in Toronto’s Ward community, organized a letter-writing campaign to local politicians, among them Sir John A. Macdonald, then leader of the Conservative Party and running to be re-elected as prime minister. “As a way to solicit Black votes, Albert’s superintendent was encouraged by the politicians to have [him] be trained and to take up his position [as a letter carrier],” Henry-Dixon explains. Jackson was promptly reinstated as a letter carrier and would remain one until his death in 1918.

Canada Post’s decision all these years later to name the new processing facility after Jackson is a way to honour both his legacy and how far the mail service has come in 140 years.

The massive warehouse is well situated — about 40 per cent of all e-commerce shipping in Canada originates in the Greater Toronto Area, and that figure is expected to double in the next decade. The fact that the Crown corporation has invested so ambitiously in its infrastructure suggests it’s determined to hold its own in a sector dominated by global logistics giants such as DHL, FedEX and UPS. (Canada Post, which owns Purolator and SCI Logistics, controlled about a third of the shipping market in Canada in 2020, according to Statista. It recorded a $548-million loss in 2022 in the extremely competitive market.)

Shortly before the grand opening of the Albert Jackson Processing Centre this past September, Canada Post held a private reception for Jackson’s descendants. Almost 200 people showed up, including his grandson, Lawrence, who has since passed away. And Albert Jackson’s legacy lives on beyond simply a name on a flagship e-commerce hub: two of his descendants still work for Canada Post, one in the Mississauga Gateway plant and another as a letter carrier.

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This story is from the January/February 2024 Issue

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