CBC Digital Archives

The metric housewife

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.

"Oh, the difference it's going to make," says journalist Marion McCormick in this 1970 clip from Matinee, a women's radio show. She's commenting on a white paper that's just been tabled in Parliament, outlining Canada's plans to implement the metric system. McCormick believes metric is definitely superior to imperial. But she warns that the typical Canadian housewife will have to learn a "whole new language" when it comes to tasks like cooking and sewing. "It's coming, and we better get ready for it," she says. 
. In January of 1970, Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government introduced "The White Paper on Metric Conversion." The paper argued that most of the world's countries were already using metric and the United States would eventually convert, so Canada should go metric soon. The leaders of all the political parties in the House of Commons supported it at the time.

. The government developed the White Paper in response to ideas proposed by groups of scientists, engineers, manufacturers and builders, as well as some consumers and educators. These metric advocates were pushing for Canada to go metric in order to facilitate international trade, and to co-ordinate engineering and manufacturing standards with the rest of the world.

. The White Paper outlined three basic principles for guiding government policy on metrication:
- The eventual adoption of metric should be acknowledged as inevitable and in the national interest
- The system should generally be accepted for all measurement purposes
- Preparation for the conversion in both the public and private sectors should aim to achieve the maximum benefits "at minimum costs to the public, to industry and to government at all levels"

. Initially, the White Paper said metric conversion wouldn't be enforced by law: "No legislative action is contemplated that would make mandatory a general use of metric in place of inch-pound units, although some legislation may prove desirable to foster familiarity with metric units." When the government later began legislating mandatory metric conversion, critics frequently referred to this passage of the White Paper to complain that the government misled them.

. To plan and manage the goals established in the White Paper, the government established the Metric Commission Canada in 1971. The Commission oversaw approximately 100 different "sector committees" made up of representatives from business and industry, consumers, labour, health, education and government. Each sector committee had to prepare a conversion plan for its sector and monitor the plan's implementation, while the Metric Commission oversaw and approved each sector conversion plan.

. As illustrated by this clip, programs and articles aimed at women were quick to react to the news about metric, primarily focusing on the changes that would have to be made when shopping, cooking and sewing. A 1970 Globe and Mail headline announced, "Shoppers face the biggest adjustment in switch to metric system." And a 1974 Globe and Mail article opened with the line, "Thorny problems lie ahead for the Canadian homemaker now that North America is marching toward the metre."

. In the 1974 Globe article, Jane Keely of the American Home Economics Association warns that a housewife's job could soon become horribly complicated - especially if cookbooks and cooking implements aren't properly adjusted to help facilitate the transition. "Can manufacturers and publishers somehow manage to sustain a period of co-existence for today's inch-pound-units and those of the metric system? If not, dinner may be late or inedible because the cook got too bogged down in her tables of metric equivalents."

. The switch to metric has yet to be completely accomplished in the Canadian cooking world. Today (2005), recipes in Canada are usually published using a mix of imperial and metric, with imperial often being the default measurement. Chatelaine magazine, for instance, typically shows the imperial measurement first with the metric measurement beside it in brackets. Most kitchen implements today, such as measuring cups, also feature both systems.
Medium: Radio
Program: Matinee
Broadcast Date: Feb. 4, 1970
Reporter: Marion McCormick
Duration: 7:13

Last updated: November 23, 2012

Page consulted on December 5, 2013

All Clips from this Topic

Related Content

John Diefenbaker: extra clips

His eyes blazing and his finger stabbing the air, John George Diefenbaker set 1950s Canada ali...

John Diefenbaker: Dief the Chief

His eyes blazing and his finger stabbing the air, John George Diefenbaker set 1950s Canada ali...

Leaders' Debates 1968-2011: Highlights

After months of anticipation and weeks of campaigning, it all comes down to one night. Televis...

Peter Gzowski: Voice of Canada

For three hours a day, five days a week - for 15 years - millions tuned in to CBC Radio's Morn...

Marc Garneau: Canadian Space Pioneer

His bravery is inspiring, his grace is charming and his credentials are out of this world. In ...

The Avro Arrow: Canada's Broken Dream

It's the closest thing Canadian industry has to a love story and a murder mystery. The Avro Ar...