Nov 17, 2022 | Red Deer


When I first came to Canada 17 years ago, I was confused with the oven temperature as it just didn’t make any sense and asked the landlord, “Do we use Fahrenheit for oven?” How could I not get confused; air and oven temperature, why should they use different measurements? For those who were born and/or raised in Canada you would take it for granted about this difference, but not for new arrivals who most likely come from countries using metric system. Yes, from 195 countries in the world, only two are using Imperial system: the U.S. and Liberia. Recently Myanmar has changed to the metric system.


So, why the U.S. doesn’t use the Metric System like the rest of the world?

The U.S. Customary System is based off British Imperial units that started in 1824. Although the UK adopted the metric system in 1965 the US didn’t. Since the Imperial system was in place during the Industrial Revolution, big business had campaigned against movements to adopt the metric system.


The Metric System adoption in Canada

In Canada, some 50-40 years ago the issue between Imperial vs Metric system adoption was also politicised – maybe just like to mandate or not to mandate wearing masks now .. lol. In early 1970s the Liberal government introduced the metric system to Canada; bit by bit a series of metric conversion events were applied to get people accustomed. First it started with product labeling, then temperature, rainfall measurement, wind speed, speed limit, distances, gasoline price. But some Conservative MPs were against this. After the PC government took over in 1984, the Metric Commission was abolished in 1985. Today, Canadians use Celsius for the weather, buy gasoline in litres, observe speed limits in kilometres per hour, along with distances in kilometres, but use feet and inches in measuring height, pounds in weight and a mix for cooking measurements. This mixed/”bilingual” system might be attributed to the “unfinished business” of the Metric Commission, and also due to our close trade and business relations with the neighbour south of the border. Nowadays younger people (who learn metrics in schools) and those who live in urban areas are more common to use Metric system (Wikipedia).

A recent poll by Research co. found that most Canadians prefer to carry on with the International Metric System. 38% of Canadians aged 55 and over would go back to the imperial system, but this wish is less prevalent among younger ones: 23% for those aged 35-54 and 24% for those aged 18-34. This is consistent with the poll in the U.S. Even though they use Imperial system down there, more young people prefer Metrics system: A recent poll from YouGovAmerica shows increasing interest in the metric system among Americans especially among 18-29 year olds, compare to those 45 and older.



But which one is better: Imperial or Metric System?

I think the answer is it depends of who you ask. People tend to feel comfortable with what they grew up with, and will defends their choice – except perhaps the 25% younger people in the above poll. It’s like: I grew up with tofu and tempe(h), so I like them so much .. but for you it may taste blah, yuck, bland etc. and prefer cheese instead (it’s too common to hear people mocking the taste of tofu 😊).

I found Metric system is easier because when conversing within the system, you just play with multiplication of tens or tenths, so no need to do complicated calculation. All you need to understand is the hierarchy: kilo – hector – deca – Base Unit (grams, metre, litre) – deci – centi – mili. In Imperial system, you should know that 1 foot = 12 inches, 1 yard = 3 feet, 16 ounces = 1 pound, etc. Then 1 gallon = 231 cubic inches = 128 fluid ounces = 256 tablespoons = 768 teaspoons =16 cups = 8 fluid pints = 4 fluid quarts. And so on. I know, there’s gadget now, all you have to do is get your phone and enter the data. But it would be hard for a student to get a sense of how big or how small something is because it’s lost in translation .. err .. conversion. Teaching measuring units should not be reduced to a tedious exercise in conversion or rote memorization of numbers.

U.S. Metric Association also think it is important to teach Metric system at school because of these reasons.

  1. Simple: it has only one unit for each quantity of type of measurement
  2. Coherence: no numerical definitions or constants to memorize
  3. No fractions: using decimals, eliminating clumsy fractions and mixed numbers
  4. Prefixes: short, convenient, unambiguous, easy to pronounce – such as kilo (k) for 1 000, mega (M) for 1 000 000, giga (G) for 1 000 000 000
  5. Few units: it has only 30 individually-named units that can be learned in a short time
  6. Easy to write and say.

Furthermore, USMA said that Metric should be thought as the primary measurement system in schools, because it is essential in science, and it is increasingly used in other fields as well. Those who are not competent in this will be at a competitive disadvantage. This is especially true for higher paying jobs in technology and multinational businesses.

But there’s one thing that I like from Imperial system: when cooking, you can simply use cups, teaspoons or tablespoons as a measurement tool – no need to measure in grams so the kitchen scale can stay in the cupboard 😊


Recorded accidents due to incorrect measurement

In daily life, don’t underestimate the impact of unit mix-ups. An Air Canada – Boeing 767 flight almost crashed because of this. In 1983, the famous Gimli Glider accident blamed on mistaking pounds for kilograms, which resulted in the aircraft carrying only 45% of its required fuel load.

The Air Canada flight was lucky to have a happy ending when no one was killed thanks to the skilled pilot. But a Korean Air flight was not that lucky; it crashed in Shanghai in 1999. Aircraft altitudes are in feet throughout the world except in China, Mongolia and some former Soviet states. The crew thought they should be at 1500 feet even though they were instructed to climb to 1500 meters, and began a rapid descent. They lost control and crashed.

But accident also happened within the same measurement system. A Wales man died of coffee caffeine overdose as he mistakenly drank the powder in grams instead of milligrams. And of course, you’ve heard about many people in the U.S. thought ¼ pounds of burger is bigger than 1/3 pounds (and before you mock Americans, don't be surprised if you'd find lots of Canadians also think the same .. lol). 

Here is the link for more stories on Unit Mixeups.

So, whatever system you use, make sure it is the correct measurement – or accidents might happen.