Canada’s march to metric is measured in inches and centimetres
A random mixture of metric and imperial measures has made us a bilingual nation
March 2, 2016 by John Bleasby
Brian Mulroney drove a stake through the heart of Canada’s headlong conversion to the metric system in 1984 when his government abolished the Metric Commission. Thus ended the previous Liberal government’s determination to ram metric down the throats of Canadians. Given the wide-spread resistance to conversion to metric, the Conservative government wisely laid the issue to rest by simply backing off.
Since then, many regulations forcing metric conversion on Canadians have been either repealed or just plain ignored. And while there is no talk of the newly-elected Liberals sending jack-booted metric police to knock down doors in the near future, the government still promotes conversion to metric in areas where it stalled halfway, like Canada’s construction and home-building industry, using helpful on-line conversion tips and tables.
Letting the marketplace decide
Our industry currently operates with a laissé-faire acknowledgement of metric, with a whole lot of imperial thrown in. For example, most commercial plans, certainly anything governmental, are drawn in metric measures. Residential drawings? Not so much. The result is not as confusing as it is time consuming doing conversions back and forth.
“Realistically you have to speak both languages” explains Tom Johnston, outside sales representative for RONA in Barrie Ontario. “This is especially true in the engineering when you go into Part 9 of the building code. For example when you’re looking up the span of a 2 x 6 on 16 inch centers, the code tells you how much it is in meters, so you’ve got to work it all back.”
Construction industry veterans like Johnson have it a bit easier than the younger generation who learned metric in school. The imperial system is quite foreign to them, forcing them to adapt. “Younger people coming into the business are learning how to go back and forth; it’s coming along slowly” explains Johnston. “It depends on who trains them. If they’re working under an older guy, they’re probably speaking in both systems.”
Who rules? Metric or Imperial?
Interestingly, when it comes to fluid measures, like auto gas purchases, Canada has been quicker to adopt metric. This makes for some interesting scenarios in the building supply store however, when customers happily seek out paint in litres and brushes in inches.
For the tool industry, the evolution to metric has been slow. Although you will continue to see a 6 inch radial saw on display, you aren’t likely to see it labelled as a 15.24cm radial saw any time soon. “We sell both the SAE and the metric” says Johnston, “but after that initial push, it kind of died. There was no pressure to go any further with it.”
Tale of the tape
In terms of pure measurement itself, bilingualism is more evident. “In the past few years, we have seen the balance start to even and then tip toward English/Metric tape rules (vs. straight imperial measure) in our ProTape categories” says Louise Fair, Commercialization Manager for Hand Tools and Storage in Canada for Stanley Black & Decker. Which makes perfect sense; today’s education base favours the metric system, and therefore metric is more applicable for graduates of college and apprenticeship skill courses. “Specifically, we now ship more FatMax 26’/8m tapes than straight 25′ ” Fair continues. “In the past few years we launched a straight metric line of FatMax tapes (5m, 8m, etc.). Although the adoption was initially slow we have seen consistent growth in demand for metric only.”
Only in Canada, eh?
This, of course, will never prevent Canadians from being creative in their day-to-day use of measurements. For example when asked where I live, I will say “5 minutes from a small village about 40 minutes north of Barrie.” In fact, time is a more common measure for distances between points in Canada than either the metric or imperial systems. When asked how far it is from Edmonton to Fort McMurray, the answer is “about five hours.” That simplifies everything!
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