Perspectives on Canada’s metric transition

Following earlier discussion on Metric Views, we take a look at the current position on the metric changeover in Canada.

Earlier this year, Ronnie Cohen contacted John Bailes, the President of the Canadian Metric Association to ask for information about the situation in Canada regarding its use of metric and imperial units. John B responded with his observations. Ronnie also contacted UKMA member John Frewen-Lord about the same issue. John F-L lived in Canada for many years, including the time when road signs were converted, and has recently returned from a visit. He provides his own perspective on the Canadian metric transition. And, finally, Alan Nanders visited London last week and met the Secretary of UKMA, when, inevitably, Canada’s transition was discussed. Alan’s simple formula for converting from C to F and vice-versa was explained in an article on Metric Views in April 2015.

Here is what John B said about metrication in Canada:

“Being next door to the most metrically backward country in the universe, it is not easy to think about metric progress. I am a member of the United States Metric Association and share its frustration with the lack of change to metric usage in North America. As you may know, Canada started in 1970 and hoped that the USA would follow. In 1985 with no real sign of progress in the USA, the Canadian Federal Government declared a moratorium on metric conversion. All of our road speeds and distance signs had been converted, that being speed in km/h and distance in km. Some second-hand cars show up from the US with crappy (sic) speedometers with stupid units on them but fortunately they also have metric in smaller printing. We now have petrol sold in litres. Almost everything to do with cars is stated in metric and most food sold in metric with labels also showing imperial because it looks cheaper. The public is sort of stupid everywhere. We only teach metric in schools as a result we see signs like 2,500 sf instead of ft². Food often ends up in US packages like pints or ounces as a result of free trade with the USA. One new development is that it is now legal in Canada to sell food in non-metric units so you will actually see a cash register receipt showing units like pounds. The real problem is that some imperial units appear lower in cost so it is easier to sell in those units. We will survive as we always have. You are lucky you do not live next to the USA!”

He also asked UKMA to draw attention to the US habit of mispronouncing the word kilometre. This will be the subject of a future MV article.

John B goes on to say:

“Basically metric in Canada has stalled since 1985. Everybody is waiting for the US and I think we had better not hold our breath. I wish I could say something more positive.”

He ends with some encouraging news about the use of metric units for all large construction projects:

“We do have large construction projects underway and completed which are all metric. One is a huge tunnel under Niagara Falls, Ontario, to bring more water to the generators at Queenston, Ontario, Canada. It is complete. This tunnel is several storeys in diameter. You can probably Google it as Niagara Tunnel Project. It is a world-class project.”

(See Niagara Tunnel Project official website.)

John Frewen-Lord, with many years experience in the Canadian construction industry, describes his view on metrication in Canada in 2016, based on a recent trip, as a very Canadian mess:

“There have been many posts in Metric Views by contributors as to whether Canada is really metric or not. Having just returned from one of my many visits there, after having lived there for over 30 years (during which I was involved in the country’s official conversion program in the construction sector), perhaps I can share my own views as to the current status of metric usage in Canada.

“My views are based on the situation in Ontario in 2016. Other provinces may be ahead or behind in their conversion progress. For example, Alberta – somewhat surprisingly, in light of that province’s perception as being part of the wild and woolly west – was often far more metric (and may still be) than other provinces in the more conservative east.
As I have said on Metric Views in the past, Canada is not as metric today as it was in the past when Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister in the 1970s and 1980s (and father of today’s PM) decided that going metric would differentiate Canada from the USA, and take Canada into the new world order, as exemplified by other Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

“Taking the construction industry as an example, back in the late 1970s, the construction industry did go metric, and, especially in the ICI (industrial, commercial and institutional) sectors, stayed metric for many years. I worked for a total of two decades (full and part time) for the Canadian Institute of Steel Construction, and all of its mandatory standards were 100% metric – in fact, they work ONLY in metric. Other ICI work I was involved in as a quantity surveyor was invariably designed and built using millimetres (I still have cost estimates prepared for various hospitals I worked on, all metric). Architects preferred working in metric units – in the late 1980s when the Toronto General Hospital embarked on a program of re-measuring and digitising its 100 000 m² of space, the architects wanted a 15% premium if the drawings were to be done in imperial. Not worth it, the hospital board decided. (Today, the publication The Canadian Architect is still predominantly metric, with imperial conversions where appropriate, while the National Building Code is still only metric.)

“But then along came Brian Mulroney, Canadian Federal Prime Minister from 1984 to 1993, and instigator of the original Free Trade Agreement (FTA, and precursor to NAFTA), ca. 1990. Under huge pressure from the USA, and overriding his own chief negotiator, Mulroney took a very pro-USA approach to the agreement, proudly claiming “Canada is open for business” (and in the process dismantling much of Canada’s standards and other regulations based on metric measurements). It was a heavy price Canada is still paying today.

“So where is Canada now? We can start by looking at the major success story, road signs. On this last visit (April 2016), in nearly 1500 km of driving, both urban and rural, not once did I see an imperial measurement, and it has been thus for four decades now. Whether on the signs themselves, vehicle instrumentation, or in the press and other media, everything was exclusively metric (dual speedometers excepted). Conversations with Canadian residents reflect this – ask them about the fuel economy of their car or truck, and it will always be in L/100 km, as that is all they know. (The use of the upper-case L for litre is universal.)”

John F-L has supplied the following pictures to show just how metric Canada’s roads are:



John F-L comments on Canadian weather reporting as follows:

“The other metric success story is the weather. Canadians are fully metric when it comes to expressing temperatures. Not once was the dreaded degree F mentioned, either by the media or by all the friends and family I met with – and we did talk about the weather quite a lot (initially warm, things later turned cool).”


Regarding other parts of Canadian society, John F-L continues,

So far so good. Unfortunately, the rest of Canada’s metric situation is rather a muddle. When I ordered a glass of wine in a restaurant, the waiter asked whether I wanted the ‘6 ounce’ or the ‘9 ounce’ size. Now, I truly had no idea how big these glasses were – I never ‘got’ ounces before, and I wasn’t about to start! The colleague I was dining with converted these to mL – but even he then mused as to whether the ‘ounces’ were imperial or US Customary (the waiter didn’t know).

“Things were better elsewhere. I visited a new attraction in Toronto, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, which was almost exclusively metric – the only imperial I saw was a depth chart labelled in increments of multiples of 100 m, with feet equivalents in parentheses. Otherwise only metric values were given.


“In the shops, most packaged retail items are labelled in either metric only or metric first with imperial following, usually in parentheses. Many items are in rational metric quantities, but not all.  I saw shampoo in 1 L bottles and toothpaste in a 100 mL dispenser; dishwashing liquid in 950 mL size and fabric softener in 832 mL size (weird); moisturiser sized at 470 mL; chips (crisps) in 200 g size; and so on. The following are some products I saw in a local supermarket:


“As can be seen, primarily metric – even if soft converted from imperial (in the case of the anti-bacterial wipes).

“Least metric of all is probably the DIY market. There are two primary reasons for this:

  1. The majority of products are sourced from the USA (being cheaper than they can be manufactured in Canada), and the USA makes few concessions to metrication (or even, in some instances, Canada’s legal requirement for English-French labelling). Where a product is made in Canada, it will be metric-labelled, such as this laminate flooring:
  2. Most of Canada’s housing stock is wood framed to a 1220 mm x 2440 mm (4 ft x 8 ft) module. Thus all sheet goods – plywood, particle board, drywall, etc. – are sized to this module. Consequently, most DIY products follow suit, which is understandable. Even my pro-metric architect colleague admitted he sometimes works in imperial when doing residential work, as that is what everything is sized in.

“That doesn’t mean that all DIY products are sized in rational imperial sizes. I saw in Home Depot tubs of paint sold in various bizarre sizes. They were all priced as ‘per gallon’ – yet they were sized as 3.78 L (US gallon), 3.45 L (?) and 3.36 L (??). Nowhere was an imperial 4.54 L gallon (once upon a time, the only legal gallon in Canada), or the previous rational 4 L size, to be seen.

“Interestingly, one can often see packaging labelled exclusively in imperial for the English text, and dual metric/imperial for the French text. These are usually items imported from the USA. Note that in the picture below the ‘16,059 cubic in’ shown in the English text has been converted to ‘263 159,86 cm³’ in the French text – surely 263 L would have been better?


“On the industrial front, again US influence pervades. My son has become the manager of a new division in his company that is starting the manufacture of cranes and hoisting equipment under licence from a US company. Because he obtained his engineering degree solely in metric units in Canada, and has worked only in the all-metric automotive sector since, he has had to undertake a crash course in US Customary measures. Now, instead of working in milli- (or micro-) metres and newtons, he is having to work with lbf and thousands of an inch.”

So what should we in Britain make of this? Despite the signage muddle on UK roads, we must be thankful that the UK has been able to move ahead in other areas. But when it comes to trade deals, such as TTIP, it seems we should beware of Americans bearing gifts.

Metric Views would like to thank John B and John F-L for their revealing and informative responses to our request for information. Next week, we shall be taking a look the metric transition south of the 49th parallel, and asking, in relation to measures, “Was it for nothing that a cargo of tea was tipped into Boston Harbor?”

12 thoughts on “Perspectives on Canada’s metric transition”

  1. This article does confirm a couple of areas I have also noticed where Canada is ahead of the UK when it comes to metric: weather reports and mass (weight).

    Weather reports do indeed stick to just degrees Celsius (and no Fahrenheit even on the hottest of days!). The also always give wind speeds in km/h (thanks to the long history of metric speed limit signs) and barometric pressure in kPa (not hPa or worse millibars, let alone inches of mercury or even mm of mercury, the last three most common in the USA).

    I was also pleased to see that the old hotel where my wife and I spent our honeymoon a couple of years ago (yes, I married very late! 😉 in Victoria, British Columbia, had a thermostat marked only in degrees Celsius (but only the numbers, no “C” given either). My poor wife had to have me convert to Fahrenheit for her (she is from Oregon and has never left the States) so she could set the thermostat where she wanted it!

    Finally, weight in Canada is indeed typically given in “kilograms” rather than “pounds”. And one never sees or hears of “stones”. (Just cannot wrap my head around this “stones” business … sorry, mates! 🙂


  2. Ezra wrote: ‘ They [Canada] also always give wind speeds in km/h (thanks to the long history of metric speed limit signs)

    Exactly – metric signs for speed and distance give practical use to the metric that Canadians learn at school. This is quite different to the UK where metric is taught but pupils are somehow expected to relate to imperial measures when they are of an age where they wish to learn to drive. The omnipresence of imperial road signs in Britain also leads to the BBC, both on domestic programmes and on BBC World, reporting almost all distances and speeds, anywhere in the world, in miles and mph. The Americans will understand, probably most Brits will too, but does anybody else?


  3. I know this has nothing to do with this subject, but did you know that imperial college London has a night club on campus called Metric. Now that’s the most ironic thing I found on Google today. I wonder if they serve in litres instead of pints


  4. I was impressed by comments from John Bailes, John Frewen-Lord and others about Canada’s partial and halted Metric Conversion. The comments and perceptions of these gentlemen are “bang on.”

    As a Canadian who has lived in his country for most of his life allow me to comment briefly on some quirky, idiosyncratic or even funny aspects of dealing with either partial Metrication or with some oddly inept interpretations of it. Lastly, and space permitting, there was the problem cause by Canadian milk bag Metric conversion back in the 1970’s.

    As above cited observers of the partial Canadian Metric conversion scene have noted, grocery store prices, especially in advertisements, flaunt the per pound price in large print, with the kilogram unit price often hidden in small print in a corner. This has given rise to some odd pricing practices, where surprisingly many items are priced at $2.18/kg, because that price corresponds to $0.99/lb., which is then displayed in large print.
    There is also little rhyme or reason in this partial Metric conversion in Canadian supermarkets, when tubs of sour cream, cottage cheese and peanut butter are sold in Metric 500 gram containers containers, but butter and margarine are sold in 454 gram metricated Imperial formats.

    Another quirky anomaly occurs when media and police reports use Metric conversions in a manner that suggests a false sense of accuracy. Thus a police or news report will deal with a personal injury resulting from an automobile windshield (windscreen) being struck by a “2.27 kg stone.” – The investigation police officer would have reported a “5 pound stone” as the object causing the damage. Metric reporting protocol, however, would convert that estimate of the stone’s weight with an unintended implied accuracy to the second decimal place in equivalent kilograms.

    But, I saved the best Canadian Metric conversion conundrum to the end.
    It is involves bagged milk. You see, in many parts of Canada, milk has for decades been sold in the packaging format of three (3) sealed plastic bags, encased in a second outside envelope bags, with families placing these individual bags into handy plastic pouring pitchers. For decades, this has proven to be the cheapest and handiest format of providing milk to families.

    Until Metric conversion in the 1970’s these 3-packs of bagged milk contained 3 Imperial quarts of 1.14 litres each, for a total of 3.42 litres of milk. – How to convert the 3.42 litre format to Metric was to become a problem even discussed by the Canadian Cabinet in Ottawa at the time. Reducing the format to 3 bags of 1 litre each would cause an uproar and would spell political suicide, with a government sanctioned Metric initiative robbing Canadian mothers and children of (0.42 litres) of milk per 3-pack.

    Finally the wisdom of Solomon prevailed in the great Canadian milk bag Metrification of the 1970’s. Ever since those early days of Metrication, Canadian bagged milk has now contained 3 individual bags of 1.333 litres each, for a total of 4 litres. – The government would be safe for another day as Canadian families were not deprived of milk by the then uncertainties of Metrication.


  5. Even though Canada is being held back by the USA and the after-effects of the last Conservative government in Ottawa, there are some bright spots.

    For example, I just bought a jar of Bubba’s Kosher Dill Pickles here outside of Seattle, Washington. While I saw a lot of US Customary units on the label (required the FPLA or Fair Product and Labeling Act), I did notice that the contents were also listed as a rational 1 liter size. (I guess US Federal law allows the sale of pickles by volume? Seems odd.) And I see that the label indicates that the pickles were packed for distribution by a US company (don’t remember the name now), which is why the US Customary units are on the label in addition to the metric units and why there is no French on the label.

    Looking further, I note the pickles are produced and packed in Canada. That is why I presume the metric size of the jar is exactly 1 liter. So, there are folks in Canada are still thinking and working in metric! Hurrah! 🙂


  6. I should add that if our FPLA ever gets amended to allow only metric units on packaged goods (which is what has been suggested for many years but never included in new legislation yet), my jar of pickles (gherkins) produced and packaged in Canada for a US company could be labeled with just “1 Liter” and that’s it. Now THAT would be a nice leap forwar! It would also start sending a positive message about metric to American customers with a possible shift in attitude over time towards metrication in the USA.


  7. Ezra,

    Is this the product you are referring to?

    Some products are rounded metric, others are not:

    The pickles, relishes and sauerkraut definitely are, but the horseradish is USC, at 143 mL. They may sell world-wide and the major markets want metric. For markets outside the US, they would drop all of the USC chatter.

    Yes, amending the FPLA to allow metric only may result in dropping all of the USC chatter, but it doesn’t guarantee it. Some companies may feel US buyers will shy away from metric only products or even products with funny USC declarations. So, you may continue to see dual for some time.


  8. @Daniel:

    Yes, that is the site. Nice range of products! And I see they show both a Canadian label (rational metric) and a USA label (may be rational metric or not).

    I really do suspect that when the FPLA is amended to permit metric-only labeling, lots of products will drop the US Customary over time. That cascade effect might also influence products labeled for sale in Canada to drop Imperial altogether as well.

    I also notice the pickled herring on Bubbie’s web site. Ah, that takes me back to the kiddush I would enjoy as a young boy after morning prayers every Sabbath where they served the herring, the egg kichel (bow tie cookies), the wine, and the schnapps (though not for a youngster like myself)! Such nostalgia! 🙂


  9. I am 53 years and learned metric while young and in college. I think metric is great for science but not for regular people. Most people tell me they like metric better but yet, on their own steam, they don’t convert fully. Why, because imperial is not just a measure but more importantly, it is a part of the English language. That’s why Quebec converted much faster and more complete than the rest of Canada. Personally, I don’t give a rats ass how much simpler the metric system is, English is my language and my measure. Canada must stop this denigration of our language!


  10. What a strange wish list for 2017.
    Americans wish for the allowance of metric only FPLA which we have had for years in UK. In UK we wish for metric to be allowed on our roads which have been allowed for years in USA (not very successfully it has to be said.) Each thinks that will pretty much be the beginning of the end of the world daftest set of measures.
    But then we have those that despite all the evidence of a much easier life, wish to cling on to the ancient beliefs and traditions that make life hell for those that have to knit the two worlds together.


  11. @Thane O’Dell:

    Be fair now; pretend it’s `English’ all you like, but USAian is your language (`rats ass’, indeed) and USA customary units are your measure. As the post explains, that has mostly displaced imperial in Canada—bloody grey squirrels :-). If it’s the mellifluousness of the words you like, push for `regular people’ to adopt the tentative proposal from 1668 in An Essay Towards A Real Character, And A Philosophical Language. The author was John Wilkins, a bishop in the Church Of England who was married to Oliver Cromwell’s sister. You can’t get much more English than that!


  12. There is nothing stopping any Canadian from using imperial. The problem is the real life exposure to imperial is limited and these people have to take extra confusing steps, involving time and sometimes money to get it right. The frustration of constantly converting must be irritating to the point that even though rarely spoken to others makes its way out in forum discussions involving units of measure.

    The problem will in time correct itself as the generation of people still resisting metrication finally die out and the younger generations use to metric move up to fill the void.


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