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Montreal has a valiant knack for inconvenience. The winters are brutal, and when summer finally comes, one can safely bet that any well-attended park, shopping street or highway will become clogged with construction, as every builder in the province takes two weeks off at exactly the same time in July. The Quebecois love doing things all together, en famille – and in that spirit there is Moving Day: 1 July, when the majority of residential leases both begin and end.
To call Moving Day mayhem is to prettify the truth of trucks double-parked three deep on narrow two-way streets, amateurs humping fridges up the city’s legendarily winding outdoor staircases (partly because nobody can get a professional mover – they’re all quadruple-booked), and creative Quebeckers devising all sorts of methods for relocating their stuff. On Moving Day, you will see bicycles pulling gigantic, self-made wagons, and compact cars with so much furniture bungee-corded to the roofs that homemade bumpers made of pool noodles must be employed.
The mess of Montreal’s Moving Day is enhanced by the fact that it is not primarily a city of homeowners, but one of relatively cheap rents. Close to 63% of the city’s 1.6 million people rent their homes, and about 10% of the population are said to be moving house in any given year, or about 160,000 people. It is estimated that 130,000 of these will do so on Moving Day, according to the Montreal Gazette.
Prasun Lala, a technology researcher at McGill University and the École de Technologie Supérieure, argues that Montreal’s well-stocked rental market is to blame for the puzzling persistence of Moving Day.
“A landlord is always looking for a year lease,” Lala says. “So if everyone is always moving at the same time, landlords have a better market and the chances of having months where an apartment is empty are less. If you find a place on an off month – say, January – most Montreal landlords will make you sign a lease that takes you to July, and then sign another one, beginning on 1 July.”
Like so many aspects of Quebecois culture, including well-loved songs, recipes and turns of phrase long forgotten in France, Moving Day has its roots in the province’s colonial past. In 17th- and 18th-century Quebec, there was a fixed date – 1 May – for many legal agreements. It took until the 1970s for the Quebec government to abolish this law for housing leases, and then it moved all existing leases to 1 July because too many kids were being pulled out of school to help their parents move. Since 1973, then, Moving Day has not been law, but rather tradition – a problematic idea that refuses to peter out.
It is compounded by the fact that many Montrealers move frequently – even yearly. “If you compare Montreal to a city like New York, where decent living space is such a commodity that a couple might stay together for the sake of the apartment they share, in Montreal, you have the opposite syndrome,” says Lala. “People are breaking up over and over again, because they found something more enticing down the block.”
Kristian Gravenor, a local journalist, historian and author of Montreal: 375 Tales of Eating, Drinking, Living and Loving, says Moving Day has a political dimension as well: “It’s impossible not to realise that 1 July is also Canada Day.”
In the rest of Canada, 1 July is popularly known as Canada’s birthday: a federal statutory holiday, formerly named Dominion Day, replete with fireworks, parades, street parties and a scary percentage of Canadians wearing red maple leaf-branded baseball caps with built-in beer can holders and umbilical drinking straws.
Gravenor says making Quebec’s Moving Day happen on Canada Day is nothing short of the francophone province – which has held referendums on separating from the rest of Canada not once, but twice – “punching [English] Canada in the eye”.
“Especially,” he adds, “when you also consider that Quebec has really intensely enshrined its own national holiday – La Fête Nationale, 24 June – only about a week before Canada Day.”
But even with all Moving Day’s inconveniences, it’s easy to find Quebeckers who say they wouldn’t change a thing about it. “There is a very popular concept in Quebec,” says Gravenor, “described by this word s’entraider, something like neighbours helping neighbours out. People here take pride in it.”
Lala says he has helped friends on Moving Day at least a dozen times, “because they’ve all helped me more than a dozen times”. He agrees that Moving Day is a community-building activity, like barn raising. “Its feeling is of everyone being in something together.”
He tells a story about trying to parallel-park his moving truck on Moving Day a few years ago. “The street was crazy with people and trucks, and I badly rear-ended my new neighbour’s car. Within an hour, her boyfriend was parking the truck for me. It makes me think of how, in Montreal, in the winter, if you see someone’s car stuck in the snow, you just go and help push them out. There’s no thinking, you just do it. This was the same. It was like, ‘It’s Moving Day. Disasters are to be expected.’”