The American Influence on Canada’s Metrication

John Frewen-Lord, a frequent contributor to Metric Views, has just returned from one of his regular trips to Canada. He gives us his thoughts.

It is well known that metrication in Canada is in as much of a muddle as it is in the UK. But the reasons are very different. In the UK, resistance to metrication is predominantly tied into an erroneous anti-Europe sentiment (even though it is nothing to do with Europe at all). In Canada, however, the reasons can be traced back to influence from its ten-times larger neighbour to the south. Having just returned from my annual trip to Canada, perhaps I can add some further thoughts on this.

In order to put this into some context, we need to briefly look at Canada’s history over the last fifty years. The year of 1967 was Canada’s Centennial, and marked the beginning of Canada’s transformation from a narrow inward-looking ‘frontier’ nation (where you had to fill in a form to buy alcohol, and women weren’t allowed into bars on their own), to an outward-looking and internationalist country, ready to embrace the world. Nowhere was this epitomised more than Expo ’67 in Montréal, which, for example, marked one of the first large-scale uses of international pictograms instead of words for virtually all signage.

The following year saw Pierre Elliot Trudeau elected as Canada’s federal Prime Minister. Trudeau wanted Canada to become a very different country from the USA. Over the next few years, he initiated many programs towards this goal, including a government-run universal health care system, government-backed mortgage lending schemes for new home-owners – and metrication. The first metric products appeared at the beginning of the 1970s.

Canadians were, in general, overwhelmingly in favour of metrication at the time, and nowhere was this more apparent than on the night of 4th/5th September 1977, where all speed limit signs were converted overnight from mph to km/h. The non-residential construction industry also converted wholesale to metric units, using similar protocols as had been developed in the UK. Almost all consumer products were similarly converted, as well as the food and drinks industry (at least at the retail level). The elephant in the room however was the residential/DIY construction industry, as we shall see shortly.

In 1984, the Canadian electorate got fed up with ‘Trudeaumania’, and elected a Conservative government headed by Brian Mulroney. Mulroney, in spite of his being a Quebecker, and fluent in French, was very much an ardent supporter of things American. He initiated the first Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the USA, dismantled the Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA – designed to ensure that foreign – read American – takeovers of Canadian firms were in the Canadian national interest), as well as the Canadian Metrication Board. “Canada is open for business!”, Mulroney announced when the FTA was pushed through Parliament. Those words became a euphemism for the abandonment of Canadian standards (such as metrication) and the wholesale takeover of Canadian companies by American ones, who would then shut down the Canadian operation – the very thing FIRA was designed to prevent. Metrication in Canada started to recede as Canadian standards and norms got replaced by American ones, notwithstanding government-mandated laws to the contrary.

I mentioned an elephant in the room, and that is the Canadian residential construction industry, together with the DIY market. America hugely influences the use of imperial measurements in this sector, as most products today come from America, together with Canada’s housing being almost all wood framed, and based on the same 16-inch module as used south of the border. Abortive attempts were made in the late 1970s to convert this to a 400-mm module, but they came to little, involving as it did manufacturers of sheet goods – plywood, particle board and gypsum wallboard – having to run two parallel production lines, one based on 1200x2400mm, and the other based on 1220x2440mm (4x8ft). With the metric-size products being a miniscule part of the market, they soon disappeared.

I was talking to a plumber/carpenter who was renovating the en-suite bathroom of one of my hosts and who emigrated to Canada from Poland 20 years ago (yes, they go there as well!). He said that for the first two years, he tried to do everything in metric, but eventually had to admit defeat – the 16-inch module rules everything, alongside nearly all products (such as the American-sourced finished wood trim he was installing) being sized in imperial units. There is however, some metric left – the May 2017 edition of Construction Canada shows nearly all measurements in metric, followed by imperial in parentheses. It remains to be seen how long this continues.

It’s the same in other industries – my son is manager of a factory making American lifting equipment (small cranes, hoists, etc) under licence. While the brochures use an imperial/(metric) format, all the technical drawings are from the USA and in inches, not millimetres; in lb-f, not newtons.

But the biggest shock for me was in non-residential construction. One of my hosts, a now-retired architect, mentioned that just about every single architectural company of any size had been taken over by large American firms (no FIRA any more), in order for them to obtain a Canadian licence. I found this hard to believe, but a lunch a couple of days later with a structural engineer friend did indeed confirm this – all the big names I knew and had worked with in the past were now American owned. And naturally, they used American standards, American products and American measurement units when designing new buildings in Canada (even if soft-converted into metric units to get a permit). Another nail in the coffin of Canada’s metrication.

It’s not all bad. I found Canadians in general to be quite sanguine about the mess metrication is in, yet would be happy to complete conversion if it was practicable. My daughter-in-law described in feet the new garden shed they wanted to get – then talked about the Don River in Toronto being over five metres higher than normal and only half a metre below breaching its banks (Ontario and Quebec were suffering from huge rainfalls and flooding over this period). The press and other media still reported in mostly metric units – certainly I never once saw or heard the words Fahrenheit or mile mentioned anywhere or by anyone. I rented a Chevrolet Cruze, and it came with instruments calibrated in metric only – km/h (only) for the speedometer, L/100km for fuel consumption, km for distance remaining in the fuel tank, °C for outside temperature, and kPa for the tyre (or tire!) pressure monitoring system. Most household products on supermarket shelves were in metric units, albeit in some very odd sizes.

So will Canada remain as it is, continue with its conversion, or recede even further? I fear the latter could happen. If a previous generation can be persuaded to go metric, what’s to stop the next generation going imperial, especially with the increasingly huge influence exerted by a very aggressive America? With NAFTA up for renegotiation, and Justin Trudeau, unlike his father, rather fearful of what America might come up with, Canada seems ever more likely to fall into America’s hold on its standards and culture. President Trump promotes ‘Make America Great Again’, alongside ‘America First’. It is doubtful either slogan includes metrication. And Canada will suffer accordingly.

6 thoughts on “The American Influence on Canada’s Metrication”

  1. What I wrote some time back about the USA’s eventual conversion to metric putting the last nail into the coffin of Imperial in the UK will be even more true when it comes to Canada.

    Of course, we will likely have to wait over here until after the 2020 elections for President to get a government (White House and Congress) run by Democrats, but at that point I believe we have a good shot at converting here in the USA. Once that happens, it’s basically “game over” for the likes of UKIP, BWMA, etc.


  2. An interesting thing happened during the 2008 American housing crash. Lumber mills in western Canada were forced to close do to the collapse in the American market. A short time later the Chinese bought them up and switched the production from inch sizes to metric sizes and shipped the end product to China.

    American products are rarely pure USC, but a huge hybrid. It is very common to assemble metric and non-metric sub-assemblies on a single frame, even having a mixture of metric and USC bolts. It is exactly like the way tires are described. Metric for two dimensions and USC for the third. As long As Canada chooses to be a part of this, it’s products too will be a hybrid.

    If Asian companies continue to move into western Canada, their products will be increasingly metric, where as eastern Canada with its dependence on the US will continue to follow USC practice. So basically everything will continue to be a mixture. It is very common for American companies to buy industrial products from Europe, mostly Germany. These products are always fully metric. Thus increasing the hybridisation. I can’t say how many components Canadian companies import from metric companies, but if they do it in the same proportion as the US market, then they too are producing hybrids.

    Since the Canadian portion of automobile and heavy machinery exports to the US are fully metric, this industry will remain metric as it is and Canada will continue to produce the components in metric as required. Architectural and building construction may be firmly USC, but other industries are either fully metric or heavily mixed.

    Canada could end all of this easily. Simply by expanding its customer base to include the whole world and making the US market only a very small part of its business dealings, not only will Canada grow faster and stronger, but it can end the measurement muddle.


  3. Not only Canada.
    The take over of Formula One by the American media from this season has seen the re-introduction of speed trap speeds in mph as well as km/h as from the Spanish (5th) grand prix of 2017. At least they have not introduced kph.
    On the credit side the new American boss of McLaren mentioned kW for engine power, the first I have heard in motor racing circles other than the electric cars.


  4. Although the American influence on Canada’s metrication is a negative one, the sad thing is that the UK could have a very positive influence on metrication both in Canada and in the USA.

    Today I heard a British scientist on our National Public Radio (NPR) talking about a huge iceberg breaking away from Antarctica. All of his units were in metric and the American radio host did not even attempt to convert to Imperial for the American listeners.

    We here in the USA have enormous affection and respect for the UK. Hearing this British scientist speaking metric made me realize that a fully converted UK will signal to the USA that it really was time for us over here to convert. It is truly sad both for the UK and for the USA (and Canada) that this has not happened (just as it has happened in neighboring Ireland) because I am convinced it would stabilize or even strengthen Canada’s path to completing metrication and give further impetus to us on this side of the Pond to give metrication another go and make it stick this time.

    Let’s hope a new government on both sides of the Pond realize what needs to be done and finish the job once and for all. 🙂


  5. This article published in June of last year in The Atlantic titled “Why the Metric System Hasn’t Failed in the U.S.” gives us reason to hope that we here in the USA will continue to make progress towards metrication (most likely once we have ousted Trump from the
    White House and the Republican Luddites from the Congress):

    Any further progress here will certainly have a decisive knock-on effect in favor of metrication both in Canada and in the UK.


  6. All of you associating US metrication with a liberal party are going to awfully disappointed to find out that historically – from Jefferson to Kasson to Ford to Bush I those who have made the biggest American inroads towards metrication have been (GULP!) republicans.

    Ignorance knows no political affiliation. Stop making the metric system political.


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