Today, we take it for granted that our distance is in kilometres, weights are in kilograms and volume is in litres.
There was a time though, a half century ago, when Canada followed the United States and its measurements. That was until the country began to transition towards the metric system, creating a unique system today in our country where we seem to use both systems for different things. We say a town is so many kilometres away, but we talk about our height in feet and inches, not centimetres and metres. We give our weight in pounds, not kilograms, but we talk about litres not gallons.
Today on the podcast, I am looking at that transition and its long lasting impact on Canada.
Leading up until 1970, Canada used the Imperial measurement system, which was labelled as Canadian units of measurement. With this system, gasoline was sold by the gallon but a Canadian gallon was not the same as an American gallon. For Canada, a gallon was 4.55 litres, but an American gallon is 3.79 litres. Under this, the issue of cross-border transactions was difficult because it was not always known if the values quoted in gallons were referring to the US values or Canadian values.
Interestingly enough, the metric system was first legalized in Canada by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald in 1871, but the use of yards, pounds and gallons continued despite this.
The Imperial system had been used since nearly Roman times, but throughout the 20th century, various countries began to ditch the system in favour of the simpler metric system. In the 1960s, many English-speaking countries began to shift to the metric system and today, the metric system is used by the vast majority of the countries in the world.
For new arrivals to Canada, learning to go from metric to imperial was not always easy. In the local history book of Eye Hill, one resident relates, “When I arrived here, I left the metric system behind. I found it practical to follow a recipe using measuring cups and spoons, although for my German recipes I needed a scale. I was pleased to measure my waist in inches rather than centimetres, but I found the Fahrenheit temperatures difficult to comprehend. Measuring temperature in centigrade seems so much more logical in having water freeze at 0 degrees and boil at 100. At least the use of dollars and cents made sense to me.”
For those immigrants from metric countries, the return of the system would be welcomed.
In Cadillac, Saskatchewan, in the history of Leon Mahy, it was stated, “Mr. Mahy, having learned his trade in Belgium, knew only metric measurement. Needless to say, he would be happy to see the metric system in use today as he was never quite at ease with the Imperial system.”
In 1970, the Liberal government under Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau decided that it was time to begin moving Canada in the metric direction. With the introduction of Bill C-163, things could begin. The first step was the creation of the Metric Commission. The agency was established in 1971 to facilitate the conversion throughout the decade. The commission had been created after the release of the white paper The White Paper on Metric Conversion, which was published in January 1971 that recommended a shift to the metric system since most countries were doing the same. The paper incorrectly stated that the United States would likely do a shift as well, but to date that has not happened and is unlikely to happen.
The paper cited many benefits for switching to the metric system including export trade and industry standardization.
A news report from 1970 outlined some of the worries over this coming conversion.
As for the Metric Commission, it organized over 100 sector committees, with members from many national associations, industries and more, attending. Each sector committee was itself responsible for preparing their conversion plan and the monitoring of its implementation.
The transition began quickly and in 1972, the provinces agreed to make all road signs metric by 1977. In addition, metric product labelling was introduced by the mid-1970s. The new law required all prepackaged food to declare their volume and mass in metric units by 1976.
A series of metric conversion events were planned to help get people accustomed to the change. Schools also began to teach the metric system and informational films were shown throughout the country.
Temperature values changed in 1975 when Fahrenheit was ditched in favour of Celsius. By September of 1975, rainfall was measured for the first time in millimetres and snowfall in centimetres. In April of 1976, all wind speed, visibility and barometric pressure was labelled in metric units.
On Labour Day Weekend of 1977, every single speed limit in the country was changed from miles to kilometres. At the same time, it was legislated that every new car sold in Canada had to have a speedometer that showed speed in kilometres per hour and distance in kilometres. Over the last few months of 1977, the distance markers on all signs was changed to kilometres as well.
Gasoline pumps would take longe to change from gallons to litres, but that process would be completed in 1979.
If this all seems pretty painless, well, it wasn’t. In fact, there was a great deal of opposition to the move to convert Canada to the metric system. In 1979, the metrication of gasoline and diesel sales resulted in 37 Progressive Conservative MPs to open a “freedom to measure” gas station in Carleton Place, Ontario, which sold gas in litres and gallons. In Peterborough, Ontario, there was a a great deal of opposition to the metric system even though the community was one of the three testing centres for the metric system by the government. The other two testing locations were Sherbrooke and Kamloops. The MP for Peterborough, Bill Domm, was very critical of the metric system and several government employees lost their jobs for refusing to abide by the metric system. One individual, Neil Fraser, worked for Revenue Canada and publicly opposed the metric system to the point he was dismissed for conduct unacceptable for a public servant.
For a time, the gas station run by MPs was very big news, and profitable.
Some newspapers were also opposed to the change, including the Toronto Sun, which organized a petition with the names of tens of thousands of Canadians who opposed the metric conversion.
In the Rolling Hills Review, it was stated about the metric system, “In Canada, the government has attempted to force conversion without public debate in Parliament, with the result that there has been a great deal of public resistance, particularly in western Canada.”
Despite the resistance, the Liberals stood firm, even under backlash in Parliament as Trudeau did in this response.
In Herbert, Saskatchewan, Jay Abell sued the Metric Commission for infringing on his legal right to have the federal government and agencies communicate with him in both official languages. He was also asking for the reinstatement of the English Imperial System of Measures as an integral part of the English language.
Also in Saskatchewan, the Stock Growers Association asked for the complete abolishment of the metric system in 1977.
The irony of the settlers having to shift from metric to imperial when they arrived, and their children having to shift back was not lost on people.
In the history of Ravenscrag, Marguerite Bidaux said, “I remember my mother having to get accustomed to English measure, as she was used to the metric system. Today I, her daughter, am wrestling with the metric system.”
Opposition also came from premiers, who linked the metric system with socialism, as the premier of Nova Scotia did at the time.
Even with the changes to the metric system, the conversion was not universal and under the Progressive Conservative government of 1984, the Metric Commission was abolished in 1985. Training on the metric was not universal as well. This would result in the Gimli Glider, a situation where an Air Canada flight ran out of fuel mid-flight on July 23, 1983 and was forced to land in Gimli, Manitoba.
Today, Canadians use Celsius with the weather, buy gasoline in litres, observe speed limits in kilometres per hour, along with distances in kilometres, but use feet and inches in height, pounds in weight and a mix for cooking measurements.
I will end this episode today with a poem, written by Jean Kinch, for the history of Frog Lake, Saskatchewan.
“The powers that be now tell us
A metric system must be used
But cooks who learned some years ago
Will never be enthused
Old folks find grams and meters
To be a fearful drag
The young will take it in their stride
As they did the change of flag.”
Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia, Rolling Hills Review, Prairie Views From Eye Hill, Prairie Heritage, Bittersweet Years, Range Riders and Sodbusters, Land of Red and White