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d. 14 April 1784 at Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade (La Pérade, Que.)


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STEWART, JOHN CUNNINGHAM, public servant; b. 6 Nov. 1839 in Belfast (Northern Ireland); m. Geraldine M. L., daughter of Edward Mulberry Hodder*, and they had one son and two daughters; d. 26 Dec. 1888 in Ottawa, Ont.

John Cunningham Stewart’s Irish education was “further improved . . . by a brief term” under Dr William S. Smith, rector of the High School of Quebec, before he entered the civil service on 25 Jan. 1855 as a junior clerk in the headquarters of the Post Office Department in Quebec. The Canadian Post Office had only four years earlier “cast off the imperial yoke,” when responsibility for the service passed from the British to the Canadian government [see Thomas Allen Stayner*]. For the next 33 years Stewart was a part of a postal service which, no longer fettered by the need to balance the ledger, yet operating with a budget as a government department, burgeoned in response to the needs of Canadians. He served a thorough apprenticeship within the department in Ottawa. On 12 June 1857 he was promoted 2nd class clerk and on 1 Aug. 1861 was raised to 1st class and employed at postal headquarters.

Between 1866 and 1868 Stewart organized the Post Office Savings Bank branch. He was appointed chief clerk and superintendent of the branch on 25 Jan. 1868, and two months later, on 1 April, 81 banking facilities were opened simultaneously, thus aiding remote areas in Ontario and Quebec unserviced by established banks. In 1881 when the savings branch (now with some 300 local branches) was amalgamated with the money order branch, established in 1855 to reduce the sending of loose money through the mail in the form of registered “money letters,” Stewart was named first superintendent of the combined system on 13 December.

Thereafter he moved in rarefied circles. In August 1884, when the prestigious British Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual meeting in Montreal, Stewart was invited to address it on the topic of the savings banks. He used the occasion to attempt to assuage the mounting fears of the chartered banks that the government intended to usurp their business. His paper was well received, and he forwarded a copy to Sir John A. Macdonald* with an easy familiarity that bespoke previous social contact.

In mid 1887 Stewart was dispatched to Britain to conduct an “exhaustive examination of the British system of financial accounts” and to suggest possible improvements to the Canadian post office system, which was using antiquated accounting procedures established in 1851. Stewart’s recommendations were accepted in toto and on 1 Feb. 1888 he was placed in charge of all the financial operations of the department, as financial comptroller, with the rank of deputy head in the civil service. With this promotion he became the second-ranking civil servant in the department. He acknowledged his appointment to the prime minister, and successfully campaigned for free franking of correspondence for his department. By an order in council he was allowed to authorize free postage without the correspondence being seen by the deputy postmaster general, and this removed him one step farther from the control of the deputy minister; perhaps not entirely by coincidence his confirmation carried the stipulation that he was to rank below the deputy, William Henry Griffin*, in departmental affairs.

Stewart died after only 11 months in the position he had earned through diligent application. An extraordinary tribute was paid to him in the annual report of the postmaster general, and his pallbearers, including three cabinet ministers and Sandford Fleming*, bore eloquent testimony to the stature he had attained. Stewart had helped to make life in frontier Canada more liveable, and he had been able to move with the times and lay the foundations for future postal services.

His personal records have been destroyed and little is known of his private life; the emphasis on Stewart’s devotion to duty in the obituaries and in all else written about him then was a reflection on the times.

Kenneth S. Mackenzie

National Postal Museum (Ottawa), Circulars, c. April 1888; Post Office Savings Bank, Scrapbook; J. C. Stewart, “Report to the Postmaster General” (1887). PAC, MG 26, A; RG 1, E7, 46. Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1867–89, Reports of the postmaster general, 1866–88. Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, App. to the journals, 1856–59, Reports of the postmaster general, 1855–58; Parl., Sessional papers, 1860–66, Reports of the postmaster general, 1859–65. Gazette (Montreal), 3, 5 Sept. 1884. Ottawa Daily Citizen, 27 Dec. 1888. CPC, 1881.

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Cite This Article

Kenneth S. Mackenzie, “STEWART, JOHN CUNNINGHAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 14, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/stewart_john_cunningham_11E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/stewart_john_cunningham_11E.html
Author of Article:   Kenneth S. Mackenzie
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   April 14, 2024