Thursday, May 26, 2011

Culture Share: Canada - Time as a measurement of distance

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Heidi Vlach discusses time as a measurement of distance in Canada.

Time as a measurement of distance in Canada by Heidi Vlach

For a lot of Canadians, an hour is a measurement of distance. Technically impossible, but it's true.

I hadn't thought it was strange until I had to explain it a few times to visiting Europeans. Canada is the second largest country in the world, with a population of only 35 million people peppered across all this space. Major cities are hundreds of kilometres away from each other. Practically speaking, exact distance to a destination doesn't matter -- it only matters how long the travel will take. So while the road signs say that Sudbury is 386 kilometres away from Toronto, most people here will tell you that Toronto is "four hours" away. That's approximately how long it'll take to drive 386 kilometres, after all. Why nitpick?

But it runs deeper than that. Metric measurement is the official Canadian standard (hence all the road signs giving kilometre measurements). That standard was only introduced in 1971 and it wasn't unanimously supported. Many older adults are more comfortable with imperial units -- the units they grew up learning. Ask an anglophone Canadian their height and they'll probably give you a feet-and-inches measure. Changing the national standard of measure doesn't happen overnight. Even now, many product labels still list two forms of measurements (e.g. millilitres and ounces), in the same way labels are written in both national languages, English and French. Just because metric is the technical standard doesn't mean everyone needs to be forced to use it in daily life.

Because of this, I grew up with my teachers using metric (mostly) and my family using imperial (mostly). A lot of American media spills over the border, so American TV shows added to my tendency to use imperial. I prefer nice logical centimetres if I'm measuring out a sewing project, but if I look at a person to guess their height, I understand it much better in the "five foot however-many-inches" terminology I hear on a daily basis. I wasn't taught a standard system so much as I was taught a particular state of cultural shift.

Many people of my generation show their cultural shift in the same centimeters-and-feet pattern as me, and I've never known an older adult to find it strange. Like a lot of things in the Canadian mosaic culture, measurement units are mostly a matter of personal preference. And if a Canadian doesn't remember exactly how far 100 kilometres is, they probably at least know the kilometers-to-miles ratio they need to estimate the answer. Everyone manages to get along and not sweat the details too much.

So I'm fairly sure hours are used to measure distance because that allows all Canadians an easy compromise. Everyone knows how long an hour is. And unless you drive at an unusual speed, everyone takes approximately four hours to travel from Sudbury to Toronto. With that out of the way, we can all get back to discussing the weather.

Heidi C. Vlach lives in northern Ontario, Canada.