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Civil servant fired for opposing the metric system

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.

Neil Fraser lost his job with Revenue Canada. Why? He spoke out publicly against mandatory metric, and the government considered his behaviour "conduct unacceptable for a public servant." In this clip, the Front Page Challenge panel interviews Fraser, who says he doesn't hate metric itself - he just opposes the "heavy-handed approach" in enforcing metric conversion. It was supposed to be voluntary, he explains, but it clearly isn't: "You cannot call fines, penalties and threats of jail sentences voluntary." 
. Fraser had been an auditor with Revenue Canada for 10 years. After a couple of short job suspensions (totalling 13 days) for his outspoken behaviour, Fraser continued his vigorous metric protests at public meetings and on radio programs. He was fired on Feb. 23, 1982.
. Although metric was his main beef, Fraser had also publicly criticized the government's intention to entrench the new Charter of Rights and Freedoms into Canada's Constitution.

. Fraser's dismissal immediately became a highly publicized freedom of speech issue. In a Globe and Mail article published the day after his dismissal, public service union members rallied behind him, saying that being fired for simply speaking his mind was "intolerable." Revenue Minister William Rompkey, however, said any employer can fire an employee who is publicly criticizing the employer: "It was improper for Mr. Fraser, as a Revenue Department employee, to be collecting taxes for programs on one hand and criticizing them on the other."

. There were a number of letters to the editor supporting Fraser published in the Globe and Mail. One letter called Fraser a "modern David" and wished him well in "his battle against the hideous Goliath that is our federal government."
. Fraser fought his dismissal with the Public Service Staff Relations Board in April 1982, but the board ruled that his dismissal was justified. He then brought his case to the Federal Court of Appeal, which dismissed his appeal in November 1982.

. Fraser subsequently took his case to the Supreme Court of Canada, which also upheld the original ruling in its 1985 judgement. The Supreme Court agreed that although public servants are allowed to express some degree of government criticism, it is possible to go so far as to impair your ability to do the job properly. Once Fraser's criticisms took on a "vitriolic tone, even to the point of being vicious" and he refused to stop, he had crossed that line.
Medium: Television
Program: Front Page Challenge
Broadcast Date: Feb. 23, 1982
Guest(s): Neil Fraser
Host: Fred Davis
Panellist: Pierre Berton, Betty Kennedy, Brian Linehan, Gordon Sinclair
Duration: 10:10

Last updated: March 19, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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