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Sunday, June 4, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Did Canada go metric? Yes - and no

The Washington Post

TORONTO - One of the charming, if sometimes frustrating, aspects of the Canadian character is the country's stubborn reluctance to decide anything.

This is, after all, a nation that proudly maintains two official languages - English and French - even though the vast majority of citizens can speak only one.

Politics consists primarily of a never-ending debate over whether the federal government or the provinces should be responsible for just about every government function. There has been no agreement on a national flower or bird, and even the money situation is confused: Banks offer accounts denominated in either U.S. or Canadian dollars.

But perhaps nothing reflects the Canadian penchant for indecision better than the country's half-hearted adoption of the metric system. Consider:

Canadians talk about the weather in degrees Celsius but set their ovens in Fahrenheit. Snow is measured in centimeters, but wind speed in miles per hour.

Canadian architects design buildings in meters and centimeters when working for the government but in feet and inches for everyone else.

Canadian doctors record your weight in kilograms but tell you what it is in pounds.

At Loblaw's, the country's largest supermarket chain, the produce clerks speak in pounds; the fish counter measures by grams; and the meat department maintains a studied bilingualism - frozen turkeys in metric, fresh in imperial. Loose mushrooms are priced in pounds, but the scale available to weigh them measures only in grams.

On Air Canada, they tell passengers in both French and English that they'll be making the 450-kilometer flight to Montreal at 30,000 feet, earning frequent flyer miles as they go.

At Canadian Tire, you can buy a nine-kilogram bag of birdseed to go into your 1.5-gallon bird feeder, while the 1 1/4-inch nails come in 400-gram boxes.

Pretty confusing, eh?

"That's just the way we do it in Canada," explained a young sales assistant named Dean at Canadian Tire's flagship store here. "It's kind of an ongoing mystery."

Tweaking the Americans

Officially, Canada joined the league of metric nations in 1971, not only to embrace the latest totem of modernism but also to lob a shot across the bow of the imperialistic Americans.

As government bureaucrats at the Metric Commission churned out reams of new regulations, yards and pounds were expunged from textbooks.

Retailers rushed to buy new scales. Highway signs were replaced, fifths of scotch disappeared from government-run liquor stores, and manufacturers were forced to add metric measures to labels and advertisements.

The commission even tried, without success, to persuade the Canadian Football League to go metric with 100-meter fields.

The changes led to some confusion. An Air Canada flight from Edmonton to Montreal once was forced to make an emergency landing in Manitoba when the pilot discovered he was out of fuel; apparently, the ground crew had multiplied when it should have divided in making its metric conversion. Or was it the other way around?

Backlash against metric

Normally, Canadians are a pretty obedient and deferential lot, but as more of the regulations began to kick in, a backlash developed.

Metric mavericks would drive 20 miles to fill up at the lone holdout gas station selling fuel by the gallon.

An Ontario court ruled that several key portions of the metric law dealing with signs and advertising violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

When the new conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney came to power in 1984, it moved quickly to disband the Metric Commission and eliminated its squad of metric cops, effectively making metrification voluntary.

Ever since, Canada has been in a measurement no man's land.

The extent of the stalemate is on display daily among independent vendors here at the St. Lawrence Market.

At his vegetable stand, Mario Ponesse displays the prices of his tomatoes and bananas in pounds but must weigh them in kilograms, thanks to the metric scales he bought 20 years ago at the government's insistence.

By now, he can convert the prices without even thinking - 99 cents a pound is $2.18 per kilogram; 79 cents a pound is $1.74 per kilogram. These days, he says, only recent immigrants ask for anything by the kilo.

But around the corner at Odysseas Gounalakis' meat and deli counter, everything is priced in metric. "My customers are used to it by now," he says.

Browbeaten by the government and enticed by the prospect of global trade, Canada's industrial sector long ago completed a largely uncontroversial metric conversion. But other sectors of the economy, such as construction and real estate, have declared themselves hopelessly attached to two-by-fours and half-acre lots. Certainly the stubborn refusal of the United States to adopt the metric system exercises an increasingly strong gravitational pull on its northern neighbor.

"I think the trend definitely has been away from metric, at least judging by the advertising I see," said Doryne Peace, an official with Advertising Standards Canada and a self-described metric enthusiast. "I know, for myself, when I was in a store, I was very rigorous in asking for things in metric for a long, long time. Now I'm on the verge of giving up."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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