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Two systems of measurement are likely to co-exist in Canada indefinitely.

Rudy Platiel/The Globe and Mail

As you will no doubt be aware, this month marks the 50th anniversary of the federal White Paper on Metric Conversion in Canada, kicking off what the Pierre Trudeau government called the “inevitable” transition to metric measurement.

“All units of measurement used in Canada,” declared the Weights and Measures Act, passed later the same year, “shall be determined on the basis of the International System of Units established by the General Conference of Weights and Measures.” A Preparatory Commission for the Conversion to the Metric System – the Metric Commission – was struck, with a staff of 90, to oversee and enforce the conversion. Deadlines were established for each sector to convert, with stiff fines for laggards.

Industry minister Jean-Luc Pépin modestly allowed that the process might take as long as 20 years to complete. But in time, the victory of metric was assured. Across the economy, in every corner of Canadian life, people would no longer reckon in fusty old feet, pounds and gallons, as they had until then under the imperial system, but in chic continental metres, grams and litres. After all, wasn’t most of the world metric already, and wasn’t the United States (“A Metric America, A Decision Whose Time Has Come" was the title of a 1971 U.S. government report) about to join them?

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It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Canadians may be familiar with highway speed limits in kilometres an hour, or weather forecasts in degrees Celsius. But for every unit of measurement that has been converted to metric there is another that has remained stubbornly imperial. After 50 years, this can’t be put down to generational inertia. Ask any 12-year-old how tall they are or how much they weigh. The answers will be in feet, inches and pounds.

Stationery is typically measured in inches (“8? by 11”) as are construction materials (“two by four”). If you cook, chances are you preheat your oven to “350 degrees Fahrenheit,” rather than its Celsius equivalent. Houses are openly bought and sold on the basis of how many square feet of living space they contain. Television sets are said to have a diagonal of so many inches. Golf holes are still measured in yards. Beer is sold in pints.

Even where metric measures are used, it is often little more than a polite fiction, known as “soft metric.” The packages are still sized in imperial, even if the number is translated into metric, the sham betrayed by the oddly precise figure used: “454 grams” of butter, say, rather than the pound it really is, or a “2.95 litre” (100 fluid ounces) bottle of detergent.

The reasons for this are not hard to find. In 1985, the incoming Conservative government disbanded the Metric Commission and amended the legislation, making metric voluntary rather than mandatory. The influence of the U.S., as our nearest neighbour and largest trading partner, would obviously have been profound.

But part of it is surely that in many instances people, given a choice, simply prefer the old system – even those who have lived their whole lives under metric. For all its vaunted simplicity and standardization, metric is often less immediately intuitive than imperial.

It’s easy to understand how long a foot is, give or take an inch: We each come equipped with a couple of ready reference points. But a metre? Other than “a little longer than a yard,” we must somehow grapple with “one ten-millionth the distance from the equator to the north pole along a meridian that runs through Paris” (the original definition) or “the distance light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second” (the modern standard).

At any rate, whatever people’s reasons for using non-metric measures, they do. And yet, no crisis ensues. Metric advocates used to complain about this lack of uniformity, predicting widespread confusion would result. Instead, by and large, people seem able to work things out. All that’s required is for both parties to an exchange to use the same units of measurement: It doesn’t matter what units they use.

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It isn’t so much that the law has not been enforced as that it was never needed in the first place. People today use metric, or imperial, not because they have to, but depending on which is most useful to them. If you do business with other countries, outside of North America, you’ll use metric, whether the government tells you to or not. The advantages of posting speed limits in kilometres an hour rather than miles per hour, on the other hand, would seem obscure.

And so the two systems seem likely to co-exist indefinitely. Rather than converging on one or the other, people will continue to use whichever makes the most sense to them for a given purpose, an unpredictable hodgepodge conforming to no overall logic or plan. Isn’t it glorious?

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