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‘The great Canadian metric debate’

The Story

"The way we calculate is a cultural thing," insists Toronto Star columnist Dennis Braithwaite in this light-hearted TV debate from 90 Minutes Live. Fiercely anti-metric, Braithwaite is pitted against Brian Philcox of the Canadian Metric Commission. Philcox argues that metric is "so much simpler, easier to learn, easier to use. The system you've got now is something that is really kind of wild and hairy, if you think about it." But Braithwaite will have none of that. He thinks metric's too difficult to learn, and believes it's too costly for the country to convert. And metric's greatest fault "is what it does to our identity." To lighten up a potentially intense debate, host Gzowski takes a few opportunities to poke fun of his own inability to do metric conversions. "I'll be back in 120 hectares from now," he says as he ends the segment. 

Medium: Television
Program: 90 Minutes Live
Broadcast Date: Sept. 27, 1977
Guests: Dennis Braithwaite, Brian Philcox
Host: Peter Gzowski
Duration: 9:42

Did You know?

• Braithwaite frequently criticized the metric system in his acerbic Toronto Star columns from the mid- to late-1970s. When discussing Celsius in April 1975, he wrote: "Celsius, of course, is the Judas goat that will lead us into the darkening morass of the metric system. The nation, stunned and deprived of the power to act by this fait accompli, will be thought to have little left with which to withstand the final destruction of its values."

• Braithwaite's metric columns typically incited plenty of reader response. Reaction to the April 1975 Celsius column dominated the letters page with an even balance between pro- and anti-metric readers. "When such an important matter is to be changed, surely the public should have the right to be consulted," wrote a Braithwaite supporter. Another reader, however, wrote that Braithwaite's column "will stand as the definitive example of backward colonial thought. Is Braithwaite perhaps the president of the Flat Earth as Centre of the Universe Society?"

• Generally, Toronto Star readers seem to have been divided down the middle on metric during the mid- to late-1970s. An April 1978 Star reader poll found "almost an even split among those polled," with about half of Toronto residents saying they would rather revert back to the imperial system, while the other half supported the change.

• One of Braithwaite's recurrent criticisms was that metric would wipe out part of the country's cultural heritage. As he wrote in September 1977: "The way we count and measure is a cultural thing. I wish some of these dry, technical types pushing metric would show me how we are going to fill the gaps left in our language and folklore when gallons and feet and miles are banished. What becomes of Shylock's pound of flesh or the miss that's as good as the mile?"

• One criticism brought up by Braithwaite and numerous other metric critics was the cost involved with metric transition. A 1984 Financial Post article stated that from 1971 to 1983, Metric Commission Canada's work "has cost about $40 million, with industry's conversion costs certainly in the hundreds of millions."


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