The 49th Parallel – still a line in the shifting sands?

John Frewen-Lord, one of our regular contributors, has recently visited Canada and has sent Metric Views his observations on the current state of the metric changeover there. Comments on this article from readers who know Canada are particularly welcome.

Canada has always enjoyed (if that is the right word) a special relationship with the USA. But that relationship has undergone many transitions and changes over the 147 years since the country became independent from Britain via the British North America Act. Many of those changes have been instigated by Canada in its efforts to distinguish itself from its more populated neighbour to the south, while others have been imposed from outside as Canada developed as a country.

It is always easy to define Canada in terms of what it is not – it is not the USA and it is not Britain, even though vast elements of life in those two countries still form the bedrock of what Canada is today. As a result, Canada has constantly tried to forge its own path in making its way in the world, often in the face of significant opposition from the USA. Part of that path has involved the country in 1965 requiring everything to be labelled in both English and French, along with formally adopting the metric system in the 1970s, even though this was all at odds with the USA’s strong influence on Canada’s way of life, especially in regards to trade between the two countries, along with associated codes and standards.

Pierre Trudeau was perhaps one of the most iconic of Canada’s Prime Ministers in the twentieth century. A strong federalist, he mapped out a vision for Canada in the 1970s that was much more internationalist than before. He embraced multiculturalism – not always successfully, and perhaps with his own agenda in mind of creating a ‘client state’ that was philosophically beholden to his Liberal Party that governed Canada for more years than the other parties. But one cannot fault his belief in creating a Canada that was far more self-assured than at any time in its short history. In particular, Trudeau wanted a Canada that was much less dependent on the USA, economically, culturally and politically.

But the easy access to US markets, primarily via the border between the two countries colloquially known as the 49th Parallel, was simply too enticing to subjugate in favour of the more difficult markets overseas, and so the original Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the USA was born at the end of the 1980s, masterminded by a much less nationalistic Conservative Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney. In spite of the fact that the FTA was extremely flawed, with too much in the USA’s favour (viz. the ongoing softwood lumber dispute), Mulroney managed to use the Conservatives’ large majority in the House of Commons to get the Bill passed. With strong influence from the USA, along with cheaper American imports made by companies already catering to a market ten times larger than Canada’s, the exclusive use of the metric system, at one time almost completed, inevitably declined.

So how do Canadians feel today about the country’s metrication status? Having lived there until the beginning of the new millennium, and having just returned from my annual visit, I can report that, while use of the metric system is not what it once was, it seems currently to be getting no worse. Metric usage appears to fall into two main categories. Anything that is official or put out by large and often multinational companies or broadcast or published by the media will at least show metric units alongside Imperial, and as often as not, will show the metric first, or even exclusively (especially the media). On the other hand, a lot of retail trade (particularly DIY and residential construction materials) is conducted in Imperial, or even US Customary (reflecting the disappearance of true Imperial and the consequential informal and unofficial adoption of the American units). Canadians, like their British counterparts, are quite ambivalent about whether to use Imperial or metric units in everyday conversation, and you will often hear both in the same sentence.

The following are a few pictures of metric usage in Canada in 2014.

WestJet is a western-Canada based airline that is run on very similar lines to Southwest airlines in the USA. Sometimes known as cowboys, they certainly fly their planes very aggressively, as I found out when I flew with them from Ottawa to Toronto. This image is taken from the July issue of their house magazine.  As can be seen, metric predominates, and is exclusively used for the French text.


At Canadian airports, only metric units will be seen, whether it be specifying the maximum volume of liquids that can be carried on board (100 mL), or on the departure displays in the terminal, as the following picture at Ottawa airport shows.

airport_display_canada -r

It was hot – the previous day we hit a high of 37 °C.


The roads are still as metric as possible, and I heard no-one talking anything other than km, km/h and L/100 km. This was taken from the front passenger seat of my colleague’s car in the Ottawa region.

road sign ottawa-cr

road sign Ottawa-cr2

Retail advertising on the other hand is not nearly so metric-friendly. This image is from a Canadian Tire (large DIY and automotive chain) flyer, showing a mix of metric and Imperial:

can tire ad-cr2

The use of French and English together results from the stores covered by this flyer being in the Ottawa area, where you are likely to hear French being spoken more often than English – in the Toronto area the equivalent advert would be in English only.

Will Canada’s use of the metric system change in the future? It might very well. An Editorial on 24th June in the Globe and Mail, a centre-right broadsheet, postulated on the changing relationship with the USA. In particular, it noticed that Canada is, finally, looking far beyond the 49th Parallel in its trading patterns, exhibiting in the process a new-found confidence in trading with China, Japan, Korea and other far eastern countries. Such new trading patterns will require Canadians to start making the use of metric units the default.

The new leader of the Liberal Party in Canada, which is predicted to win the next federal general election, is none other than Justin Trudeau, son of Pierre. Will Justin follow in his father’s footsteps? That of course remains to be seen, but it does seem that Canada just may just start looking much more west across the Pacific rather than south to the USA. Pierre would have been pleased.

(Editor’s note: due to limitations inherent in the software used for MV, two of the images lack detail. Originals can be provided on request.)

6 thoughts on “The 49th Parallel – still a line in the shifting sands?”

  1. John FL,

    The road sign picture is a bit fuzzy. Is that a reverse color “km/h” placard under the speed limit sign? I know they are available, but are generally only used in border areas to remind the Americans that Canadian speed limits are in kilometers per hour.

    They are available as a separate placard that can be affixed to any sign, or the same can be integrated into a slightly taller speed limit sign, but always reverse color.

    I was surprised by no metric at all, even in the French text, on the ceiling fan and air compressor.

    (Editor. Thanks, John, for the info on the speed limit sign. I have added a detail pic.)


  2. @John Steele:

    The reverse colour km/h is part of the sign, and shows that this sign dates back many years – more recent signs just show the numerals. Apologies about the fuzziness of the picture – we were travelling at around 100 km/h at the time! Plus there may have been some dirt or film on the windshield.

    The lack of metric units in the French text is not unusual from this company – Canadian Tire is an Ontario (read English language) based corporation, and the products it sells are often sourced in the US – which means of course that there are rarely any metric units accompanying them. A translator will have created the French text for the Ottawa, Quebec and other French-speaking regions, but likely would have no expertise in converting measurement units. Hence the original Imperial or USC units are used as is.


  3. Visiting relatives in Canada I have discovered that their “mess” seems to be as large, if not larger, than that in the U.K. Whilst all road signage is totally SI, as is weather reporting, land is advertised in acres and floor areas in square feet. Floor coverings are sold by the square foot. About 95 of loose foodstuffs are sold by the pound, sometimes with the price/kg shown as well in very small text. The weight of the contents of packaged goods is measured in SI units. Per unit costs are shown in supermarkets in SI, but in minuscule text. Draught beer is sold by the pint or pitcher; coffee, spirits, etc. by the oz.

    Having now returned to the UK, my final take on the situation in Canada is that, despite government communications and the media being wholly metric, everyday metric usage lags behind that in the UK. Those I asked said that there was no general or organised objection to SI, but the proximity and volume of trade with the US was a real issue. Cloth, predominantly imported from the US, came in a width of 45 inches, but was sold by the metre length. I saw punnets of Californian strawberries marked as 2 lbs. No metric equivalent was given. Loose confectionery was priced per 100 g. The same items pre-weighed were sold in 1/2 lb, 1 lb and 2 lb bags. All very confusing for the consumer (by design ?), especially when not all prices included tax !

    People weigh themselves in pounds, give their height in feet. As opposed to conversation in the UK, metric units are always used for large quantities, e.g. for distances over, say, 50 m, and areas greater than 1 km squared whereas I hardly ever heard cm and mm mentioned; always feet and inches or fractions thereof.


  4. @Anthony,

    The strawberries are interesting because they would be illegal in the United States. Items sold by standard, pre-packaged weight MUST be dual labeled in the US. Items of random weight or weighed at retail may be sold by Customary weight only. So the US packager made a special label for Canada (did it have French?) that would not be legal in the US, but didn’t comply with Canadian law either.

    In the US, small, berry-like fruit (includes grapes, cherry tomatoes and a few other items) may be sold by either dry volume or weight, but in both cases, dual labeled.


  5. Having lived in Canada for 3 years and working on farms when I was there I would say I barely heard a Canadian farmer mutter a metric word. I only ever heard km being used over long distances, as most of the farmland in Alberta has been surveyed off in 1 mile by 1 mile or 1 mile by 2 mile sections. Miles were almost always used when giving directions.
    Temperature was done in Celsius, but then everybody’s ovens in their houses are in Fahrenheit.
    Gallons was used when referring to things like filling up the sprayer, and my boss would always order fuel for the farm in gallons.
    Pounds and feet are definitely the norm there and many people really don’t seem to have a grasp of how much a kg or a meter is.
    But I guess if they are happy working like this I don’t really seem any need to change it.


  6. I visited Canada in October 2014, my time spent on a road trip which took in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton (and a big chunk of mountain road between them). My visit started and ended in Seattle south of the border so use of customary units was to be expected but the tour guide in the Space Needle was very quick to give the height of the building… and that of the city’s neighbouring volcano, in metres as well as feet.

    My experience in western Canada was that for the main part metric was the predominant system of measurement. What did shock me though was seeing a placard for a newly constructed warehouse on the southern outskirts of Calgary (albeit on a highway that heads south straight to Montana) that gave the floor space of that building ONLY in square feet.

    It’s also interesting to note that players in that country’s national sport of hockey are measured in feet-inches and pounds but this is most likely since the majority of the National Hockey League teams are based in the USA.


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