You see a date on a form written as 04/05/2016.

But is that April 5, 2016, or is it May 4, 2016?

It turns out there's no standard for writing the date numerically in Canada — and a new private member's bill aims to at least partially address that.

Gerri MacVicar, tax consultant

Gerri MacVicar, a professional tax consultant, says confusion about the date can cost taxpayers money. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)

It's an important consideration for people like tax specialist Gerri MacVicar. She said she often sees inconsistencies in the way the date is expressed numerically on important forms — and it can be a real problem.

That's because the Canada Revenue Agency often uses the date people enter themselves to determine when their taxes were officially filed, MacVicar said.

So what happens if you write 04/05/2016?

"April 5 or May 4? Taxes are due on April 30, so if your taxes are filed in May, you're now late and you will be charged," MacVicar said.

A Canadian problem

This confusion is uniquely Canadian, said Ken Holman of the Standards Council of Canada.

"Our proximity to the U.S. and our cultural background to England is really causing the mess-up," he said.

He said the United States is the only country with the colloquial practice of putting the month first — which doesn't present a problem there, since there's consistency on the practice. 

It's a different story when products cross the border into Canada, a country where people use both the month/day/year and day/month/year formats.

date on federal government forms

Even the federal government can't settle on a single way to express the date, as seen on these forms, which ask for dates to be written in two different ways. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)

"Here in Canada, we get a lot of software from the U.S., and I know of translation that has to happen," he said.

"There's interpretation — 'Oh, what do you mean by that numeric date?' It can be very confusing."

Inconsistencies even crop up between different federal government departments. 

When you apply for a social insurance number, for example, your date of birth is to be entered as day/month/year.

If you apply for the Canada Pension Plan, it's year/month/day.

A call for clarity

But now, there's proposed federal legislation aiming for some standardization — at least in the legal world.

Bill C-208 is a private member's bill put forward by Todd Doherty, the Conservative member of Parliament for the B.C. riding of Cariboo-Prince George.

It proposes that legal documents with potentially ambiguous dates follow the year/month/day format.

Similar legislation has been tabled by other Conservative members of Parliament before, as far back as 2006. But it's never made it past a first reading.

Doherty said he chose to put it forward because it was already written up, and because he has a passion for the issue himself. He said he has a background in aviation — a field that also has confusion about numerical dates.

Doherty said he's hopeful the bill can be amended to have a broader scope as it goes through the legislative process.

International agreement

The global community has already settled on a standard for expressing the date numerically. 

In 1988, the International Organization for Standardization proclaimed the year/month/day format should be the standard.

Ken Holman said it's the best choice, because what follows the year expressed in four digits is intuitive.

"I've never seen anyone accidentally or colloquially use year, day, month," he said. "That's not something that one would see."

Holman said he's encouraged the topic is gaining some attention thanks to Doherty's bill.

Bill C-208 was tabled in December, but has yet to make it to a second reading.