The Battle for Daylight Saving
by Cheryl MacDonald
Among the various legacies of the First
World War are two rituals observed by most Canadians.
One, usually accompanied by considerable
grumbling, is filing an income tax return. Although introduced
as a temporary measure in 1917, income tax is still with us.
The second is resetting the clocks, forward
in the spring to launch several months of daylight saving
time, then backward in the fall to return to standard time.
Minor confusion, including missed appointments, does occur.
It also takes some of us a couple of days to readjust our
sleep schedules. But most people hardly give it a second thought,
and many enjoy the extra hours of evening light that daylight
saving time provides.
Yet, when daylight saving time was introduced
during the First World War, it created a controversy that
pitted rural residents against city folk in acrimonious debate.
Like food rationing and income tax, daylight
saving time was proposed as a means of making the most of
available resources. With more daylight hours during the spring
and summer, factories could reduce the cost of workplace lighting,
which in turn would make essential items a little cheaper.
Switching to daylight saving time was presented to Canadians
as a patriotic duty.
The economics of saving daylight had been
discussed on and off since the 18th century. American statesman
and scientist Benjamin Franklin proposed it while he was ambassador
to France from 1776 to 1778. By Franklins calculation,
resetting clocks would save France 96 million livres per year
But not much was done about the idea until
1907, when William Willett, a builder in London, England,
published a pamphlet suggesting a similar scheme. To minimize
disruptions, Willett proposed that clocks be moved ahead just
20 minutes for four successive Sundays in April. The scheme
was widely ridiculed, but in 1916 Britain introduced summer
time as one means of increasing war-time production.
Because ties with Britain were still strong,
several Canadian communities followed suit in 1916, including
Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Brandon, Manitoba and Brantford, Ontario.
The results were somewhat mixed. In Brantford, so many people
were upset by the move to daylight saving time that city council
returned to standard time in August, a full month ahead of
By 1917, however, the Conservative federal
government under Robert Borden decided to legislate daylight
saving time. The matter was tabled in the House of Commons,
but took a back seat to the conscription debate. Liberal Opposition
leader Wilfrid Laurier, among others, suggested that any move
to daylight saving time should be voluntary, not mandatory,
and most MPs agreed. As a result, the daylight saving bill
Undeterred, the Conservatives reintroduced
the topic in 1918, in spite of vocal opposition from both
members of parliament and the general public. Farmers and
other rural residents were particularly incensed, for reasons
that went far beyond a little tweaking of timepieces.
For decades the countryside had been losing
its population to large towns and cities. Various groups,
including the Grange, the Farmers Institute, and the
United Farmers, fought to preserve their way of life and make
their voices heard in Ottawa and the provincial capitals.
But it was an uphill battle, and the First World War only
made it worse.
On the one hand, farmers were expected
to help the war effort by increasing production of essential
foods. On the other, the militarys need for able-bodied
men seriously diminished the labour pool required to meet
food production goals. When farmers demanded exemptions from
military service in order to work the land, urbanites claimed
they were unpatriotic, or worse, cowardly. Then, when they
could not produce food fast enough, they were called lazy,
backward, and uncooperative.
So the two sides were already polarized
when the daylight saving bill was presented in the House of
Commons on March 20, 1918. Sir George Foster, Minister of
Trade and Commerce, introduced the bill and presented findings
based on the British experiment with summer time.
Not only did setting clocks forward save energy, Foster and
his supporters claimed it also increased peoples outdoor
activities, and decreased juvenile delinquency.
Dr. Robert Manion, the new MP for Fort
William-Rainy River, expanded on that theme, arguing that
providing more daylight was healthier and would also make
it easier for injured veterans to get around once they returned
And there were other bonuses, Manion said.
I know very little of the actionsor of the methods
of actingof the Devil, but some of my friends who claim
they do, tell me that he prefers to act in the dark. I believe
we may even raise the morals of this country.
Manion might have convinced some people,
but Nova Scotias Daniel McKenzie, MP for Cape Breton
North-Victoria, was not one of them. According to McKenzie,
Fosters bill was a serious threat to Christianity. For
at least two thousand years the Sabbath Day in this country
has begun at a certain hour, he insisted, and it was
not up to mere mortals to change it.
McKenzies grasp of history might
have been a little shaky, but he was far from alone in his
objection to daylight saving time. Some medical authorities
viewed the proposal as a major health risk, reasoning that
an hours sleep before midnight was worth two after.
By tampering with the time, legislators were inviting calamity,
especially in the case of young children.
A letter to the editor of the Weekly Sun,
the official newspaper of the United Farmers of Ontario, elaborated
on this belief. If daylight saving time was introduced, young
country children would have to rise at 6 a.m. in order to
have enough time to walk to school. But youngsters should
not get up before 7 a.m., he insisted, and to force
earlier rising is to endanger a nervous system already under
heavy enough strain in the work of the school.
From a distance of 90 years, these arguments
seem a bit ludicrous. Time is, after all, merely a convention,
and plenty of parents know firsthand that young children can
rise with the sun and not be any worse for it. But there were
some persuasive arguments against implementing daylight saving
time on the farm.
George Boyce, MP for Carleton, was a lifelong
farmer who was convinced that introducing daylight saving
would harm Canadian agriculture. Regardless of what time the
clocks said, at harvest time farmers had to wait a few hours
after sunrise for the dew to dry. We cannot handle our
hay or our grain in the early morning, because if you bind
it up wet, it will rot.
And then there were concerns about possible
conflict between workers hired from town and regular
An editorial in the Weekly Sun quoted
E.C. Drury, leader of the United Farmers of Ontario and future
premier of the province, who noted that hired help typically
worked from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Under daylight saving, if townies
quit at 6:00what is practically the middle of
the farmers afternoonthere would be resentment
from live-in help, who likely would be expected to go on until
at least 7:00, possibly longer.
Some opponents of the scheme suggested
that daylight saving time would benefit only golfers and store
clerks, by giving them extra daylight at the end of their
work day. While that might have been an exaggeration, it was
very clear that rural residents were dead set against daylight
saving time. A.B. McCoig, MP for Kent, stated bluntly, The
measure has no support whatever in the rural sections. Every
agriculturist whom I have come in contact with is absolutely
opposed to changing the time. McCoig also tabled a letter
from the Wallaceburg branch of the United Farmers of Ontario,
stating their opposition to daylight saving time. And W.A.
Charlton of Norfolk County, although not convinced either
way, informed the House that he had received a number of petitions,
including one from Norfolk County Council, opposing the scheme.
In the end, railways and the United States
tipped the balance. Daylight saving time started in the United
States on March 31, 1918. Because Canadian trains were still
running on standard time, some had to wait an hour at the
border before continuing to their destinations, both in order
to meet their schedules and to avoid accidents. Rather than
lose money idling at border crossings, the railways endorsed
daylight saving and the House of Commons followed suit. At
2 a.m. on Sunday, April 14, 1918, Canadians moved their clocks
ahead one hour.
Still the grumbling continued. The war
ended in November 1918, but the topic of daylight saving was
reintroduced in the House of Commons in 1919. Again, the realities
of rail transportation and doing business with the United
States prevailed. Although provinces and municipalities were
given the choice of opting out, ultimately most of them gave
in. Daylight saving time had apparently come to stay.
Main sources: Hansard & The
Note: Saskatchewan does not observe daylight saving time.
This is an original story,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 53, Winter/Spring 2007. Copyright Cheryl MacDonald.
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