Sunday, June 26, 2011

Canada is Unofficially Bimetric

 I wrote the following 2 years ago in response to a question from my 3rd cousin who was raised in South Africa and is now living in Western Australia. His wife had purchased some patterns made in Canada and was surprised to find them measured in inches. So he asked me if we still used the old inches, feet and yards system. He also asked if we used Fahrenheit or Celsius for temperature. This was my reply:

Just as Canada is officially bilingual (English and French) though few outside Quebec are fluent in both, we are unofficially bimetric (I just made up that word).

Canada half-heartedly made the official switch to metric about 30 years ago but we never completely let go of the old system. I think they even still use inches and pounds in grade school. For decades we have had both systems overlapping. The intention was for the confusion to last for just 1 generation but we haven't been disciplined enough to learn the new system well enough to let go of the old, which just prolongs the agony.

We think of distance in either miles or kilometers. Both work efficiently for different distances -- for short distances miles approximates minutes of travel at 60 miles per hour (e.g. 35 miles will take 35 minutes) while for longer distances 100 km approximates hours and fractions thereof at 100 km per hour (e.g. 250 km is 2.5 hours). Metric fuel consumption never caught on at all - only in auto ads do you hear liters per 100km; everyone on the street still thinks in miles per gallon (20 used to be standard, newer efficient cars can brag 35-40 mpg). Gasoline pumps did switch to litres years ago just as the price reached $1 per gallon, so they could list it as $.22 (or whatever it was then) instead. However over the years the price of gas has climbed until it surpassed the $1.00 per L mark (and was heading for $2 before the recession brought it back below $1 again).

Grocers sell produce with the price listed "per 100g" but also list in small print the "per pound" price; fabric stores will measure centimeters or inches, whatever the customer asks for, and calculate the price accordingly. Older patterns would be in inches; more recent ones (unless from the USA) in cm. Grain is sold officially by the tonne (1000kg) but the price of grain is still discussed among farmers as $/bushel, or yield as bushels per acre instead of the official tonnes per hectare. Few farmers here could tell you how big a hectare is but they all know what an acre is. For one thing the land in western Canada was surveyed into 160 acre Quarter Sections (a Section is 1 mile x 1 mile so a Quarter Section is 1/2 mile x 1/2 mile), so for that reason it still makes some sense to work land area in acres and sections.

The other reason for the resistance to change is our biggest trading partner and neighbor to the south - the USA. They do not have a strong enough government to enforce a switch - the people wouldn't stand for it. Besides they think they are important enough that everyone else who wants to do business with them can speak their language including their measurement system. Products imported into Canada from the USA  have some interesting measurements like 946ml (USA 32 oz or 1 quart) or 454g (USA 1 pound). It's easier to just use the American bottle and change the label.

To return to your first question, temperature is a little better than half converted. The weather reports all use C but some people still talk in F. Thermostats can be set to read either and most thermometers have both, one on each side of the red line. Everyone knows the significant temps in both systems - water freezes at 32F or 0C; comfortable room temperatures is 70F or 20C; and -40 is just as cold in both!

There, ended up writing an essay to answer a simple question.


  1. This was the Blog Fodder's comment on my bimetric essay back in January 2009:

    Canada began the switch to metric in 1970, I think, with temperature switching from ºF to ºC. Most people are quite comfortable with Celsius now. Rural Canada, in particular Western Canada as Stan says has been quite backward in adopting metric for a number of reasons. Land was surveyed in miles and acres. On the highways, kilometers work fine but rural roads are laid out on the square with distances between in miles, so directions to a farm location given in km are clumsy at best. Fuel efficiency cracks me up. We measure distance on the odometer in kms, buy fuel in litres but as Stan said, many people still do the math to calculate backwards to mpg. Doh!

    I am, or was till I moved to Ukraine, an amateur woodbutcher and construction has not made the switch at all. Except plywood thickness which is now in mm, all else is in Imperial measure. Like your patterns.

    The beef cattle industry has not made the switch either mainly because Alberta is the lead province in beef production and Albertans are of American extraction or American wannabees. And as Stan says trade with the USA is a big driver. 50% of Canadian beef is exported to the USA. The dairy industry long ago made the switch to metric but of course that industry is light years ahead of the beef industry when it comes to adopting new technology.

    I’ve been working internationally for so many years, I have made the switch to metric long ago so I could communicate with the rest of the world. And of course so I can irritate our backwards backwoods rural Canadians when I go home.

  2. Saved me the trouble of having to rewrite it. Thanks, Stan

  3. For our home renovations all the plans to the city have to be in metric dimensions and the structural engineers report is metric but all discussion with the contractors is in feet and inches. "Bimetric" is good term for it because we have become fluent in both systems for many applications.

    However in the electrical industry where I worked it is 100% metric. Volts, amps, watts are metric units which are universally used.

  4. Bimetric is a good word for it but i'm still so old school don't even get me started. Some things like recipes are impossible when the supplies come in another measurement and as far as the temperature- i just open the door and check it out, simple cuz it's always raining or it's not and who worries about tomorrow; distances are so far away now i don't even go anywhere anymore!

  5. I'm under 25 and when I was in elementary school we used the metric system for everything, but nobody knew their own height or weight in anything but inches and pounds. On the other hand, my family was already completely Celsius before I was born, so I've never known anything but a freezing zero. I use Litres, mL, and 250 mL cups for liquids, never fl Oz. I also use grams for weighing food.

    I just don't understand why it's taking Canadians so long to convert to metric for bodily measurements of all things. Maybe it's because they aren't things you do everyday, measure or weigh yourself. Because it's not a priority, nobody really pushed knowing how many "cm" or "kg" you are. Kg are bigger than pounds, so we'll all feel a lot lighter once we convert. We'll also be a lot more "cm" than we are "inches". But going from saying 5'11" to 182 cm really will be weird...

  6. Thanks for "weighing" in on this topic, Anonymous. Good to hear that metric is being taught in school and taking hold for most measurements. One of the reasons that certain measures are slower to convert is to preserve historical references. For example, 30 miles per gallon fuel consumption used to be a high standard for cars. No idea what that would be in L/km. Similarly 40 bushels per acre was a bumper wheat crop. Again, few farmers would know what that would be in tonnes/hectare. But sometime somewhere the break must be made and new historical standards set.
    Out of curiosity - where did you attend elementary school? With education being a provincial jurisdiction, metric education could vary across the country.