VANCOUVER—Ray Saunders’ days of climbing ladders are behind him, that much he knows for sure.
For decades, driving around Vancouver to each public clock, climbing to their faces and manually cranking wheels to put the hands forward or backward by one hour has been a daylight saving time tradition for the clockmaker.
That’s set to change, as Canada’s westernmost province appears set to join a global trend to modernize time. Due to legislation passed last fall, British Columbia is poised to cancel the practice of shifting back and forth between daylight time and standard time, which could make it the first Canadian province to bring in permanent daylight time. (Saskatchewan adopted Central Standard Time permanently in 1966.)
The European Union and 26 U.S. states have all begun the process of shifting away from the First World War-era policy that leaves populations in a state of social jet lag twice a year. It could be the beginning of a tide that wipes the biannual horological disruption away for good.
Saunders, the 80-year-old maker of Vancouver’s famous Gastown steam clock and regional authority on a dying trade, plans to make the most of what could be his last outing to change Vancouver’s clocks — while delegating the ladder-climbing to his much younger apprentice.
“All I have to do is point,” Saunders said. “I’m a bit depressed, because this may be the last year that we’re doing this task.”
To Saunders, the change in B.C. is yet another symbol of the passage of time, the decades-long drumbeat that has overseen the replacement of analog watches with smart devices, and rendered the mechanical necessity to turn physical wheels on clocks largely obsolete.
“A digital phone thing — it’s not easy to figure out,” Saunders said. “It’s just easier to see a clock and see the time that’s coming, and the time that’s passed.”
Introduced in Europe during the First World War in an effort to conserve energy and extend working hours, daylight saving time, or at least the changing of clocks back and forth into daylight saving time, is now widely condemned by health and safety experts, who say it amounts to forcing an entire population into a one-hour jet lag twice a year.
Efforts are underway throughout the world to make time changes a thing of the past. This week, the Yukon announced that Sunday’s spring forward would be the territory’s last. Washington state, Oregon and California are all working on plans to switch to permanent daylight time, which need Congressional approval before they can be put into action. The B.C. government passed legislation last fall that would allow it to stop the clock changes at any time.
The rationale for ending the practice is clear. Studies have repeatedly shown that changing the time increases road accidents, eats away at concentration and can even increase the rate of heart attack and stroke in the period directly after the clocks change.
“Surprisingly, that one hour can make quite a bit of difference to us,” said Wendy Hall, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s nursing school who focuses on sleep. “We end up with a social jet lag that can go on for as long as one or two weeks.”
The impact is particularly pronounced in kids and teenagers, Hall said. Their internal clocks may have a harder time adjusting to a new time, and they may become more irritable and energy-deprived when they miss sleep.
And the “social jet lag” brought on by changing the clocks is something many people feel strongly about for the simple reason that it creeps into their daily lives, occasionally with disastrous results.
Kamloops, B.C., business owner Bob Dieno will never forget the unfortunate incident in university that put him on a path devoted to fighting time changes.
“I had a final exam Sunday morning at ten o’clock after the time change and I never made it. I slept right through my final exam,” he recalled. “From then, I always wondered — why do we actually do this? I always had it in the back of my mind.”
Along with his friend, Tara Holmes, Dieno started a B.C.-wide petition to get rid of the time changes in 2016.
“We thought in a year maybe we would have three or four thousand signatures,” he said. “Within six weeks, we had 25,000.”
Still, the idea of B.C. switching to a permanent time didn’t gain real traction until last year, when Washington state introduced legislation to bring in permanent daylight time, and the province conducted its own consultations through an online survey.
That’s when it became really clear just how many people took issue with changing clocks.
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The survey, which ran for about a month in the summer of 2019, got more responses than any other survey in B.C. history, with 223,273 people participating. A total of 93 per cent said they wanted the province to switch to a permanent time.
That gave Premier John Horgan an ironclad reason to introduce legislation to end the time switches at the end of October. For those eager to say goodbye to time changes, the legislation planted hope that when the clocks went back the following month, it would be the last year with 4 p.m. sunsets in Vancouver.
Now the premier is grappling with another balancing act — co-ordination.
The legislation Horgan’s government introduced was intended to match the province with Washington, Oregon and California south of the border. As B.C. prepares to spring clocks forward, it finds itself ahead of those American states in its ability to end time changes. The West Coast of the U.S. can’t halt the practice until it gets approval from Congress, which is unlikely to happen in an election year.
“There’s a lot of businesses that are integrated across the border: TV schedules, sports events, airlines that need to co-ordinate the schedules,” said Werner Antweiler of the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business. “I don’t think B.C. will move alone if it can be avoided.”
But with so many British Columbians asking for the change, implementing permanent daylight time is a big thing for the premier to avoid.
Speaking to reporters this week, Horgan was noncommittal on the question of whether B.C. could end the practice of switching time before its southern neighbours.
“In our consultation there was a desire, a majority, that we work in lockstep with our neighbours to the south,” he said. “But we’re not bound by that. I believe I am going to gauge what people have to say about it.”
With the Yukon announcing its eventual transition to permanent daylight time this week, Dieno said he’s “more confident then ever” that B.C. will follow this year — and that the tide won’t stop there.
“I’m 100 per cent confident it will happen — it’s just a matter of when,” Dieno said. “If B.C. is the first one to change, the rest of the provinces will just follow.”
An effort to implement permanent time died in Alberta last fall, and a private member’s bill in Ontario is not currently a high priority for the province.
It’s a development Creston, B.C., Mayor Ron Toyota is watching closely. The small town of about 5,000 people has kept its own time for the past 80 years — permanent Mountain Standard Time.
Right now, that means the town keeps the same time as the rest of the province of B.C. during the summer, and the same time as the province of Alberta during the winter. If B.C. implemented permanent daylight time across the province, it would match what already exists in Creston.
“Technically, everybody else is working to what we have,” Toyota said. “It’s kind of weird because it’s just a small community and valley.”
On Sunday, he said, he’s going to have to think twice before making the one-hour drive to Cranbrook, B.C., which is also on Mountain Standard Time but observes daylight saving time.
“We’re in a pocket, it’s confusion,” he said, adding a decision by the B.C. government to implement permanent daylight saving time would save his municipality some present headaches. “It’s not that we’re different; it’s that all of you are different to us.”
Saunders, the clock maker, is also looking toward the future. His trade, he says, is on the way out. And the practice his apprentice will get moving public clocks forward on Sunday may not be of use in the future.
But he’s still focusing on teaching the restoration of clocks — the grandfathers and “fancy ones made in France” — which may be relics but are also, in a way, timeless.
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