Electrical Business

Canada’s Official Time… the Right Time and Place

November 4, 2011  By Anthony Capkun

November 4, 2011 – Daylight Saving Time begins on the second Sunday in March, and ends on the first Sunday in November at 2:00 a.m. local time (that’s this weekend). That’s when most Canadians adjust their watches and clocks by one hour. Some exceptions are small areas in British Columbia and Quebec, and most of Saskatchewan where communities remain on Standard Time all year round.

In Canada, federal regulation of Daylight Saving Time occurred only during wartime as a measure to increase war production. Today, the system of adjusting official local time is left to the provinces and, sometimes, municipalities, and has more to do with consistency and compatibility in connection with cross-border trade, financial and legal transactions, and air traffic control—to name a few.

Whether we need to set our alarm clock, place a bid on eBay or be on time for a flight, we all need access to accurate time information from a credible source.

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) is responsible for Canada’s Official Time (not Daylight Saving Time) and contributes to the calculation of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is the international time standard that is maintained by some 400 clocks in time labs around the world.


For the most part, accuracy of a minute or two is all that we require in our day-to-day lives. However, modern electronic systems such as cell phones, computer networks, GPS and power distribution circuits are more particular, requiring accuracies of one microsecond or better to manage the tide of information that is literally flowing at the speed of light.

Thanks to an ensemble of atomic clocks maintained by scientists at the NRC time standards laboratory in Ottawa, Canada’s official time has an accuracy of one second every 3 million years. As Canada’s timekeeper, NRC disseminates this precise time through short-wave radio broadcasts, a telephone talking clock, a web clock, network time protocol (NTP) and through CBC and Radio Canada broadcasts. CBC surveys show that there are over 430,000 listeners per day for the time signal. Annually there are 500,000 calls for the talking clock service, 40,000 calls for the computer code, 300,000 hits for the web clock, and 11 billion requests for time on the NTP service.

Clearly, official time is important to Canadians.

Responding to the increasing demand for tighter synchronization and greater degrees of precision, researchers in the international Time Standards community are building cesium fountain clocks, modified versions of atomic clocks that are about 100 times more precise, and optical atomic clocks that will provide time generation even 10 times more stable. While it may not have seemed worthwhile to measure time by fractions of nanoseconds before the advent of modern day electronics, it is likely that pushing the boundaries once again will lead to technologies that are virtually unimaginable today.

But, for the time being, our quartz watches, accurate to half a second per day, will keep most of us on time for squash games, school plays and air flights. Just remember, when it comes to Daylight Saving Time: spring forward, and fall back!

— Contributed by National Research Council of Canada

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