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Tory MP’s bill seeks to clarify how dates are written in legal proceedings

House of Commons.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

In Canada, technically, there's no right way to write a date. In jotting down Oct. 1, 2016, as a series of numbers, for example, Canadians would be split choosing 10/01/16, 01/10/16 or even 16/10/01.

"You can see where the confusion comes from," said Todd Doherty, a newly elected member of Parliament from B.C.

"I was previously in aviation for 20 years, and part of it was with Transport Canada, and it really wasn't standardized."

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Mr. Doherty, a Conservative elected to represent Cariboo-Prince George in October, has an answer. He became one of the first MPs – and the only rookie – to file a private member's bill during the new Parliament's brief sitting this month. One of his three bills would give any legal proceeding guidance when there's confusion about the way a date's been written down: If there are three numerals, and ambiguity, the year is assumed to be first, followed by the month and the day.

That order of year/month/day follows the international standard ISO 8601, decided by the International Organization for Standards in 1988. The order makes logical sense: It goes from largest unit of time to smallest, and it is equally sortable chronologically and numerically.

Sounds simple enough.

But, "in Canada, there is not consistent use," said G. Ken Holman, a programmer who chairs a committee for the Standards Council of Canada.

For instance, passport forms ask for dates as year/month/day, while applications for Social Insurance Numbers want day/month/year.

Mr. Holman said his son, who works in hospital administration, has had to deal with American software in the month/day/year format – common use in the United States – while, colloquially, Canadians tend to use day/month/year, which is also not optimal. It's an annoyance for those who work with computers, and led most prominently to the Y2K near-disaster.

"In our family, we've been using ISO dates since we were raising our kids," he said. "Even in notes around the house, just so there's no confusion."

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Julie Kerekes, an associate professor of language education at the University of Toronto, said the inconsistency has driven her nuts since she moved to Canada from the United States a decade ago. She said she even sees two different date formats used in the same document.

"I've had people correct me. … They seem to be certain there's a correct way, but they don't agree on what the correct way is," Ms. Kerekes said.

The international standards are voluntary, and actual usage differs around the world. Some of this may be due to how we write dates when they're not just numbers. English speakers tend to write January 1, 2016, while en français it would be more correct to say le 1 janvier 2016. The style guide for the British newspaper The Guardian suggests day, month, year, while The New York Times prefers month, day, year.

Ms. Kerekes suggests it might be international influence that's to blame for Canada's inconsistency.

"As with spelling, Canada sometimes takes on American spellings. On dates, they haven't decided whether to use the American way or the European," she said.

Ms. Kerekes said she's gotten into the habit of writing the month out rather than its number. That's the approach Health Canada, for one, suggests to avoid confusion on medicinal expiration dates, such as 2016 JA for January 2016.

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Mr. Doherty said he got the idea for the bill from a similar one proposed – multiple times – by former Ontario MP Daryl Kramp that never got voted on.

"We can accomplish this pretty easily," Mr. Doherty said. While it would be great for such a standard to spread across the country, he said it's particularly important in court where there could be the potential for evidence being thrown out.

"It's something minor in our everyday lives, but the one day it makes a negative impact it can greatly affect folks."

Mr. Doherty's other proposed bills would make public certain details of repeat high-profile offenders and create a day honouring soldiers and emergency responders, and he says he has another bill in the works for a national strategy on post-traumatic stress disorder.

Due to the rules of parliamentary procedure and the results of a lottery held by the House of Commons, Mr. Doherty's bill isn't likely to come up for debate any sooner than next fall. Or, if you want to mark it in your calendars, keep an eye out for the bill around 16/10/01.

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About the Author
Assistant editor, Ottawa

Chris Hannay is assistant editor in The Globe's Ottawa bureau and author of the daily Politics newsletter. Previously, he was The Globe and Mail's digital politics editor, community editor for news and sports (working with social media and digital engagement) and a homepage editor. More

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