Canadians dropping kilograms for the old familiar pound

Give them a kilogram and they'll take pound. If they have a choice, that is. They are Canadian store owners who are rushing back to the old system of weights and measures -- pounds and feet instead of kilograms and meters -- after an ambiguous ruling on metric at the start of this year. It gives store owners a choice: Sell in metric or imperial, as the old Canadian system is known.

Store owners big and small have been rushing back to pounds. For one thing, it sells things better. Hamburger at $1 a pound -- if you can get it that cheap -- would be $2.20 a kilogram. Human nature being what it is, $1 looks better than $2.20, even if it is the same thing.

Alcan, a manufacturer of aluminum foil, lost a huge chunk of the market when it switched from a 25-foot roll to a 10-meter roll. The price went up slightly -- because 10 meters is 39.37 feet -- and consumers started buying an American-made brand that measured in metric but still sold as 25 feet.

The Canadian manufacturer has now switched to ``soft metric'' -- ``25 feet'' in big writing, with the metric equivalent in small print.

As with so many things, the root of this problem is political. The former Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau introduced the metric system to Canada 13 years ago. Gradually, people had to get used to kilometers instead of miles, liters instead of quarts, and weathermen speaking about barometric pressure in kilopascals.

But it was kilograms and liters that caused the most confusion. Canadians were used to buying food in pounds and gasoline in liters. The switch made food appear more expensive and gasoline cheaper.

Just when almost everyone was getting used to the system, in came the Conservatives, who had opposed the metric system. But going back is not easy. Most young Canadians know nothing but the imperial system. A pint, a rod, or a peck leaves Canadian children at sea.

The minister in charge of all this in Ottawa is Michel Cot'e from Quebec, the French-speaking province where the Napoleonic-inspired metric system has gone over quite well. Mr. Cot'e decided last January that Canadians should be allowed to drift back and forth into metric while he came up with a new policy.

``Retailers are using the current system to their advantage,'' says Margaret Soper, vice-president of the Consumers' Association of Canada. ``They're using whatever system they can quote a cheaper price on.''

She gave an example of a supermarket in her hometown, Winnipeg, which sells hamburger in pounds and other meat in metric grams. Tough to comparison-shop.

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