Metricating Canada (Throwback Thursday)

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Montreal Gazette, February 3, 1973
Montreal Gazette, February 3, 1973

144 years ago today (March 19, 1871) the Minister of Inland Revenue, Alexander Morris, introduced legislation to legalize the use of metric system in Canada (Metric Weights and Measures Act, S.C. 1871, cap. XXIV). The traditional Imperial system remained the predominant system up until the 1970’s.  In 1971, Pierre Trudeau established the Metric Commission to implement the metric system with a target date of full conversion by 1980. This was hardly a smooth process. By January 1979 gas stations started selling fuel in litres. By December 1980 fabrics were only allowed to be sold by metre and centimetre. When the metric system hit the grocery stores in 1980 it was met with full-blown resistance from both consumers and small business owners.  The cut-off date for food items to be priced and advertised only by kilogram and gram was extended to December 1983. Adding fuel to the protests was the Gimli Glider incident. On July 23, 1983, Air Canada Flight 143 ran out of fuel halfway through its flight from Montreal to Edmonton due to a misunderstanding of the metric system. The aircraft was safely glided from an altitude of 41,000 ft (12,000 m if you want metric) to an emergency landing in Gimli, Manitoba.  After much political interference and public protests, on January 30, 1985, Michel Cote, Consumer Affairs Minster, announced that gallons, pounds and inches will once again be legal. The government position was that retailers would have to show “a reasonable metric presence”, whatever that might mean.

Because of our historical ties with the United Kingdom and our geographical proximity to the U.S., our measuring system remains curiously convoluted even today. Our body height is  indicated in centimetres on our ID. Our paper sizes are 8 ½ x 11 inches, not 21.59 x 27.94 cm. Our weather forecast is in Celsius, with rainfall and snowfall calculated in mm, but our oven temperature is set in Fahrenheit. We buy lumber in board foot  but garden soil in litres.  Bottle beverages are usually in mililitres but cups and glasses are in ounces. Carpets are sold per square foot, yarns in metres. Truck sizes are in tons,  dimensions are in inches, but fuel capacity is measured in litres. Cables and wires are in metres but cable ties are in inches.  Film sizes are metric but TV screens are in inches. How about our own backyard, the libraries? Books are measured in cm per AACR2 Physical Description rules, but library shelving systems are measured in inches. Track and field sports and swimming are pretty much all metricated but football is still played by the yard, for which I am grateful because I wouldn’t have a clue what it meant if the announcer said the team will need 9.144 metres for a first down.


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