CBC Digital Archives

A Canadian compromise between metric and imperial

Depending on your perspective, it was either a sensible scientific shift, an annoying unnecessary change or a sinister communist plot. Canada's decision to go metric in 1970 definitely sparked some passionate debates. It even drove some Canadians to civil disobedience. CBC Archives explores the history of Canada's gradual and sometimes shaky transition to the metric system — a transition that, to this day, has yet to be fully completed.

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It's "a safe Canadian compromise," says reporter Paul Workman in this 1985 TV clip. Metric is still mandatory, but imperial measures are OK in the sale of some products, including gasoline, home furnishings and certain foods. The Conservative government's new metrication policy seems to satisfy most Canadians - from small grocers and gas station owners, to politicians and consumers' groups. But, as one cynical woman notes, "it's so screwed up now that I don't think it matters." 
. Conservative Brian Mulroney became Canada's prime minister in September 1984.
. In November 1984, the new Conservative Consumer and Corporate Affairs minister Michel Côté announced that the government wouldn't prosecute anyone violating metric laws, but would do everything it could to protect consumers from fraud or inaccurate measuring. Côté then announced the new, less stringent metric regulations in January 1985.

. After giving it some consideration, not everyone was pleased with the government's new policy. In a late-1985 CBC Television report, Kathleen Stevenson, policy director for the Consumer Association of Canada, pointed out that this "double standard" - with some things being presented in metric and some in imperial - was too difficult for many consumers to keep track of. It could lead to people being ripped off, she said. "Freedom to measure means freedom to confuse the consumer."

. In March 1985, Metric Commission Canada was disbanded. It was replaced by a small metric office within Industry Canada. By October of that same year, the metric office became the Measurement Information Division of Industry Canada, and staff numbers were significantly decreased. In April 1988, the Measurement Information Division was shut down.

. Since metric enforcement policies changed in 1985, there has been little to no government effort to push for further metric conversion in Canada. Canada is officially a metric country, but continues to use a number of imperial measures on a regular basis. As the Calgary Sun wrote in March 2004, "Not only are we not metric, we're not imperial either. We're sort of both, depending on what you want to measure. And we're almost always confused."

. The Sun article summed up what's metric and what's imperial in 2004. Canadians measure outside temperature in Celsius, but stick to Fahrenheit for body temperature (in terms of a fever, for instance). Canadian distances and speeds are metric, but a person's height and weight usually remain in imperial. For drinks, we talk about alcohol in pints and ounces, but use litres for milk or juice. And in recipes, the hodgepodge of both systems "can make a cook weep faster than diced onions."

. A 2004 Toronto Star article speculated on why certain metric measurements (such as kilometres and degrees Celsius) were fully adopted and others never caught on. One possibility suggested by the article was that implementation of kilometres on road signs and Celsius in weather reports were switched "in one fell swoop" rather than gradually: "So that was all people saw. And people didn't want to take the trouble to do the mental calculations to get it back to imperial."

. The 2004 edition of the Oxford Companion to Canadian History also points to Canada's proximity to the non-metric United States as another reason for the hybrid system: "Given that the United States, Canada's largest trading partner, is one of three countries worldwide that has not embraced metric, it is likely that Canada will continue to straddle both systems for some time to come."

. Britain has ended up with a similar metric-imperial mix. Despite its decision to convert to metric five years before Canada decided to convert, metric conversion in Britain has been extremely slow.
Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Jan. 30, 1985
Guest(s): Ray Christianson, Andrew Cohen, Michel Côté, Bill Domm, Alasdair McKichan
Reporter: Bill Casey, Paul Workman
Duration: 4:04

Last updated: March 19, 2012

Page consulted on November 7, 2014

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