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Battle for Daylight Savings clock

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 Franklin’s calculation, resetting clocks would save France 96 million livres per year in candles.

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 schedule.

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 was defeated.

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 military’s 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 people’s 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 home.

And there were other bonuses, Manion said. “I know very little of the actions—or of the methods of acting—of 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 Scotia’s Daniel McKenzie, MP for Cape Breton North-Victoria, was not one of them. According to McKenzie, Foster’s 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.

McKenzie’s 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 hour’s 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 hired helpers.”

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 6:00—“what is practically the middle of the farmer’s afternoon”—there 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 Weekly Sun
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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