It was two days before the 2014 autumn equinox. And I was heading south along Highway #4 between Swift Current and Val Marie. The Sun was setting almost perfectly due west over an endless and perfect horizon. I glanced at the dashboard clock; it read 7:10pm. I laughed. You see, I was in Saskatchewan, where they had decided the province must remain on standard time 12 months of the year. Here, there would be no awkward, annoying shifts of an hour each March and November!
I laughed, because I knew the only way the Sun could be setting after 7:00pm around the equinox, was if Saskatchewan was actually on daylight saving time. Otherwise sunset would be at, or about, 6:00pm. What’s going on here?
Lets’ refresh our understanding of time zones.
In the late 19th century a system of 24 time zones was adopted throughout the world. Up to then, every town and city had set their clocks to local solar time — the time when the Sun is due south. If you took a train east or west, you’d have to re-set your watch at every town and city. The railways hated this, of course. Since Britain was the 19th century’s ruling naval and scientific power, the prime meridian (zero) of longitude for the newly-devised system of time zones ran from the north to south poles through the London suburb of Greenwich.
Before the time zones were bent to conform to national, state and provincial boundaries (which happened almost as soon as the system was invented), each zone was exactly 15 degrees wide. Thus all territory within the 15 degrees would keep the same time. Greenwich Mean Time was to extend seven and a half degrees on either side of zero. The next time zone to the west would be centered on the 15th meridian, the next on the 30th, then the 45th and so on.
The seventh time zone to the west of Greenwich was centered on the 105th meridian, which we call “Mountain Time.” The centre of this 15-degree-wide time zone runs almost directly through the middle of Saskatchewan north to south. So, obviously all of Saskatchewan should keep Mountain Time. If only things were that sensible.
Parts of eastern Saskatchewan wanted to be on the same time as Manitoba (Central), much as parts of eastern British Columbia keep Alberta time. But, when Manitobans advanced their clocks an hour to Central Daylight Time in the spring, the eastern Saskatchewan communities had to choose between remaining on standard time or not. Some did; others didn’t. The Canadian Pacific Railway stayed on Central Standard Time well westward into Saskatchewan, and then changed to Mountain Standard Time at Broadview, a town about 150 kilometres east of Regina. The railway, however, did not observe daylight saving time back then. Railway stations in Saskatchewan maintained only standard time — Central or Mountain — despite what the communities around them observed.
Confused? It gets worse.
Each of the principal cities — Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Swift Current and Prince Albert — handled the issue of daylight saving time differently. Regina usually adopted daylight saving time for the summer; Moose Jaw, 70 kilometres to the west, often did not. Saskatoon did; Prince Albert did not. It was a mess. You never knew when you came to a village, town or city — especially in the summer — what time it was going to be, or how long it might stay that way. A 200-kilometre drive could force you to change your timepieces half a dozen times.
I grew up in Saskatchewan and remember well the heated debates in the news media about time zones and daylight saving time. Farmers were strongly opposed to moving clocks ahead an hour in the spring and back an hour in the fall. They claimed their cows would not give milk on daylight saving time and their chickens wouldn’t lay eggs.
My favourite memory is of a Saskatoon church with a giant clock showing standard time, even when the city had shifted to daylight saving time. Beneath the clock was a big, bold caption that proclaimed that the clock was on “God’s Time!”
In 1966, the Saskatchewan government decided enough was enough. After a raucous debate, its Legislature passed a law that put the entire province on — wait for it — Central Standard Time all year. I guess that satisfied the cows and chickens. But this action perpetrated a kind of fraud, by claiming that Saskatchewan would remain on standard time all year. You see, Central Standard Time and Mountain Daylight Time are the same! So the effect of the legislation was to put Saskatchewan (which lies astride the 105th meridian on which the Mountain Time Zone is based) on daylight saving time all year.
Did that end the controversy? Of course not! Taking the designation “standard” in Central Standard Time literally, many Saskatchewan folks (mainly in the larger cities) would like to advance their clocks by an hour in March like people in most of the rest of Canada. But, alas, they’re already on daylight saving time. They just need to look up at the sky once in a while and check the time and position of the Sun — at sunrise, mid-day and sunset.
David A. Rodger is an editor, a writer, broadcaster and an amateur astronomer living in North Vancouver, British Columbia. From 1967 to 1980, he served as the first director of Vancouver’s H.R. MacMillan Planetarium.