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Alberta's referendum should not focus on daylight time, psychologists say

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EDMONTON — Ditching the practice of switching the time twice a year may seem like a no-brainer to some, but Alberta psychologists warn that the result of a provincial referendum could have unexpected consequences.

The referendum on daylight time is on the ballot alongside Alberta’s municipal elections on Monday. There is also a referendum on the federal equalization program. Additionally, in Calgary, there is a plebiscite about adding fluoride to the city's drinking water.

In recent years, there has been a push to stop forcing people to change their clocks, particularly in the spring when people can lose an hour of sleep.

Studies all over the world have linked the time change to increases in car crashes, depression, lower productivity, as well as to higher risks for heart attacks and strokes.

Michael Antle, a psychology professor at the University of Calgary who studies circadian rhythms, said ending time changes is a good thing. But Alberta should stick to standard time, not daylight.

"We do have some acute mismatch between our circadian clock and our work cycle in the spring when (we set our clocks forward)," he said.

"The better choice for Alberta in particular, but we are advocating for this everywhere, is the more natural standard time, where what your circadian clock is telling you to do and what your boss is telling you to do are less mismatched."

The Alberta referendum does not give people that option. The question posed to voters is: "Do you want Alberta to adopt year-round Daylight Saving Time, which is summer hours, eliminating the need to change our clocks twice a year?"

Antle said the question isn't well phrased and shouldn't put an emphasis on summer. 

"Everybody loves summer. If you vote against summer, you are just mean," he said. "I think that will influence a lot of people's choice."

He noted that switching to daylight time permanently will not make a difference in Alberta in the summer, but it would mean dawn at about 10 a.m. in most of the province in the winter.

The best time zone puts 12 p.m. as close as possible to solar noon, which is when the sun is at its highest point the sky, he said.

But Alberta is farther west than other places in the Mountain Time zone. That means in Calgary, for example, solar noon during standard time can happen as late at 12:50 p.m. During daylight time, he added, it happens around 1:45 p.m.

"In fact, we already have daylight time when we are on standard time and we are on double daylight time when we are on daylight time," Antle said. 

In 2019, Service Alberta posted an online survey about daylight time and 91 per cent of the 140,000 responses voted in favour of sticking to daylight time year-round, the ministry responsible for the agency said in an email.

"Many governments across Canada and United States are bringing forward or contemplating legislation to lock their clocks to a single time year-round," said Taylor Hides, spokeswoman for Service Alberta Minister Nate Glubish. 

"While we are not bound by the decisions made by other jurisdictions, we are affected by them, so it makes sense to ask Albertans this question."

British Columbia and Ontario have said they would wait until neighbouring jurisdictions agree to make the change at the same time. In the U.S., states cannot make the change without the approval of Congress, which has yet to happen.

Yukon made the change to permanent daylight time last year and Saskatchewan, with the exception of the boundary city of Lloydminster, stopped changing clocks decades ago.

Alberta's time referendum is binding, but Premier Jason Kenney has said the province could hold off until other jurisdictions make the same change.

Kyle Mathewson, an associate psychology professor at the University of Alberta, said having fewer hours of sunlight in the morning could have long-term health consequences, such as increases in certain cancers, obesity and diabetes.

"The issue with this from a neuroscientific perspective is that our rhythms of waking up and going to sleep are governed by the amount of lights in our environment," he said. "These early morning light hours are very important in setting that rhythm for us."

Mathewson suspects daylight time might also be favoured from an economic perspective.

"Thinking about this extra hour after school when there is lightness, you could think of that as stimulating the amount people go out and spend money at the local shops and those are all good things," he said.

"But that stimulus of the economy shouldn't come at the expense of our health."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 16, 2021.

Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press