Get Me That 38 X 89 Would You!

I’m not set in my ways and unwilling to embrace a global perspective. I learned French in school and worked in Quebec. I’ve even been to Europe and I love brie cheese. But when asked how far it is to the next town I never give the answer in kilometres.

Ever wonder why Canadian grocery stores advertise in pounds but price in kilograms? Simple, they want to communicate with Canadians while not breaking the law. Why would communicating with Canadians in terms we all comprehend run afoul of the law? Ask Prime Ministers Trudeau and Mulroney.

Party affiliations aside, Trudeau and Mulroney had much in common. Forced bilingualism in the civil service, forced multiculturalism for everyone else, and forced equalization between the provinces are just three examples of common ground between these political titans that the majority of Canadians find egregious. But the issue that really makes one wonder whether Pierre and Brian had any idea what Canadians were thinking is their imposition of the metric system.

My grade-school teachers tried to explain why the metric system was better than the Imperial system. Of course metric was by then

already the international standard for scientists, but that made no difference to a room full of kids. It also made no difference to millions of tradesmen, farmers and merchants across the land who faced the prospect of abandoning everything they knew about inches, miles, pints and gallons. My teachers’ argument hinged on the fact that metric is supposedly easier because it’s decimal. Instead of 12 inches to a foot, metric has 10 millimeters to the centimeter. Easy as all get out! Right? Well, then why haven’t we fully converted yet?

I still think in terms of inches, gallons and miles. I’m not an old timer like some objectors were back when Canada began the switch. I’m not set in my ways and unwilling to embrace a global perspective. I learned French in school and worked in Quebec. I’ve even been to Europe and I love brie cheese. But when asked how far it is to the next town I never give the answer in kilometres. Never. Am I a victim of my grandparents’ narrow-mindedness? I don’t think so.

Metric might indeed be the perfect language for science, but that turns out to be what makes it so woefully inappropriate for real life. No one, even a farmer, refers to a cow as a ruminant. And people only rarely refer to TV as television, and never as a cathode ray tube. And now, in the age of flat-screen digital TV, everyone uses the term “flat-screen” whether it’s a plasma TV or a liquid crystal display.

Measurement is so much more than a communication tool for scientists. It’s a component of language generated by common usage, not by the state. That’s why awkward politically-correct phrases like “person of colour” and “First Nations persons” are so rarely used in conversation even by the most multiculturally-observant.

Like bilingualism, multiculturalism and equalization, the state imposition of the metric system has failed. A few statist die-hards will disagree, pointing out that the United States is the only industrialized country that does not yet use the metric system and that Canada must be part of the larger international community. But surely anyone smart enough to become a scientist would have no problem learning the metric system in college (they taught it to us back in grade school after all). And more to the point, this really has nothing to do with anyone else in the world — it’s about Canadians. I defy you to find a single Canadian who doesn’t use the Imperial system at least once every day.

Some of my editors still refer to “column inches” and my tailor still measures my expanding waist in inches. The Canadian Wheat Board might sell in international markets in tonnes, but farmers still think in bushels. In fact, science is the ONLY place where the metric system has stuck firmly from the top down, probably because it was already being used by scientists without any government intervention back when this measuring language that my grandparents never understood was first imposed. If anyone disagrees with you on this, ask them to pick up a 38 X 89 for you. When they ask what the heck a 38 X 89 is, tell them, “It’sa2X4dummy!”

Mischa Popoff is a freelance political writer with a bachelor’s degree in history. He lives in B. C.

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