Metric ambivalence and slices of Canadian life

Out here where it’s too north for wheat,

People use both meters and feet

The confusion rebounds

Between kilos and pounds

But can Celsius make Fahrenheit delete?

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, traveled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. After three years working with a Community Health Center, I went back to traveling and adventures in temporary positions. Assignments in Alaska, rural Iowa, suburban Pennsylvania and western Nebraska have followed.  I finished my most recent assignment in Clarinda on May 18.  Right now I’m in northern British Columbia, getting a first-hand look at the Canadian system. Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

Canada officially uses the metric system, but, unlike New Zealand, they have a lot of ambivalence. Today, at the grocery store (the town has a very good one) we bought things by the ounce, pound, gram, kilo, fluid ounce, quart, milliliter, cc and liter. Carpenters use 2×4’s, plywood comes in 6’x8’sheets.  Most everyone uses Celsius to talk about the weather (even I know my favorite metric temp is 18), but when I ask about fever, half the people answer in Fahrenheit.  One patient described an involuntary loss in pounds, but all the clinic scales weigh in kilograms.  Almost no one knows their height in meters, but they do know their height in feet and inches.   People talk about their cars’ mileage in kilometers per liter, but don’t recognize the linguistic dissonance until I point it out.

At one point this last week I sat with the patient while waiting for a staffer to bring some documentation. The patient told me about an American TV game show, where contestants were asked how safe they feel in their homes, and some didn’t feel safe at all.  The patient asked, “Are things really that bad in the US?  Are people really that fearful?”  I said that it all depends on the place.  I had just finished 14 weeks in a small town in Iowa where people leave their houses and cars unlocked despite the presence of a prison in the town.  On the other hand the big cities have their high crime zones.  “How safe do you feel,” I asked, “In Vancouver?”

Gasoline runs a little over a dollar a liter here, which comes to $3.17 per gallon at current exchange rate. Quite inexpensive compared to New Zealand, and very reasonable considering the distance it must be trucked to get here.  The country has no posted speed limit higher than 100 kilometers per hour (about 62.3 MPH).  Because I take speed limits seriously, as I have no wish to get another international speeding ticket (I had one in New Zealand), I get great mileage in the small Korean car I rented.  But I get passed a lot.

Cigarettes here run $12/pack, a little less than twice the price in Iowa. The national rate of smoking in the US dropped to 16% two years ago, in Canada it’s now 15%.  Still, more than half of last week’s patients smoke.

A surprisingly large majority consumes no alcohol, and almost no one uses marijuana. At least, that’s what they tell me.  And I believe them.



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2 Responses to “Metric ambivalence and slices of Canadian life”

  1. Anon Says:

    There are posted speed limits at 110 in some places in Canada.

  2. Susan D Says:

    It’s great seeing a perspective from a traveling Doc in remote Canada, however, Canada has highway speed limits that are 120 km/hr both in Alberta and BC.

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