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.

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