Last year, the city collected 55,000 tons of garbage on and around July 1, says city spokesman Philippe Sabourin Iván Hernández Cazorla/Wikimedia Commons (License CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Moving Day is a 269-year tradition in Quebec with no end in sight. It’s a most hectic experience in the province’s biggest city.

Have you ever tried to haul a fridge up a rickety spiral staircase?

Thousands of Quebecers do it on a singular summer’s day, one that can be best explained as some kind of collective psychosis: Moving Day. Elsewhere in Canada, July 1 is Canada’s national holiday, an occasion marked by fireworks and a case of Molson. But for Quebecers, it is the provincial day of packing your stuff into a U-Haul and moving house.

Last year, upwards of 250,000 people across the province moved on or around July 1. As the province’s most populous city, Montreal—land of the spiral staircase—has the most intense version of Moving Day. According to city spokesman Philippe Sabourin, about 70,000 Montreal households move each year. That can be at least partly explained by the fact that the city has the lowest homeownership rate in the country (55 percent), exceptionally tenant-friendly rental housing laws, and widespread rent control.   

Has he moved on July 1? “Oh, yes,” he replies, laughing. “It’s quite a challenge for Montrealers,” he adds. In the days and weeks leading up to July 1, nearly 55,000 tons of garbage and discarded household items—everything from appliances to couches to yellowed Christmas trees—make their way to the curb for city pickup. Truck rental agencies and moving companies double and triple their prices. Last year, a heat wave with high humidity steeped Montreal movers in what felt like a swampy 111 degrees F.

The tradition dates back to 1750, where French settler and New France intendant François Bigot deigned May 1 to be Moving Day. The decree was formalized in the civil code in 1866 and remained intact until 1974, when Quebec passed a law that let landlords and tenants agree on any start and end date; it even allowed them to sign leases of undetermined length.

The bill’s passage extended the end date of all leases from April 30 to June 30—a grace period that was meant to be transitional. However, July 1 seemed to suit Quebecers. Forty-five years later and July 1 remains Moving Day, with no end to the tradition in sight. 

The great Montreal upheaval

Moving Day preparations begin in earnest a month or two ahead of time, when the nomadic masses begin collecting boxes and sorting their belongings.

Marie Kondo wannabes pile up their furniture, old clothes, dog-eared paperbacks, outgrown kids’ toys, and damaged kitchenware, on the sidewalk in chaotic stacks, abandoned in the rush to purge belongings. Last year, the city collected 55,000 tons of garbage on and around July 1, says spokesman Sabourin. The destination? “For the bulky items, that all goes to the dump,” he says.

The city urges residents to recycle as much as possible, but a lack of understanding of what can and can’t be recycled means a lot ends up in landfills. Many more tons end up at the city’s six eco-centers. These designated dumping sites let people drop off their broken or unwanted electronics, tires, construction materials, and dangerous products like paints and solvents.

When it comes to Moving Day madness, voluminous quantities of garbage is matched only by an almost-comical amount of road construction. “Another thing is that we have a lot of construction sites in Montreal. Nearly 400 projects are being done this year because we need to improve the state of our infrastructure,” says Sabourin. The city asks residents to report their moves to help them better coordinate roadwork and infrastructure repairs.

When everyone moves on the same day

The woman desperately waved her arms, frantically flagging down the truck of professional mover Jonathan Painchaud. She’d seen his truck coming down the street and stepped into traffic on a street with a 40-mph speed limit to stop him.

“I pulled over. ‘What’s wrong? Are you OK? What’s going on?’” asked Painchaud, the owner of Bust A Move Moving. Her movers had dumped her for a more lucrative deal, stranding her on Moving Day. She begged for help. “There was another company at her door with someone else’s stuff. I had just worked 14, 15 hours. We ended up doing it; I was alone, but her brother was there… that’s the stress that some people get put into.”

Possibly every Montrealer has a Moving Day tale of woe. Absentee—or worse, rogue—movers. Scavenged cardboard boxes or furniture infested with bed bugs. Cats and dogs left behind in empty apartments. In his 10 years of experience, Painchaud has seen it all. “I wish it wasn’t the way it is,” he says.

For him, the chaos begins in April, when he begins hiring workers. By mid-May, his June and July are booked up. Savvy Montrealers try to circumvent Moving Day madness by moving in the days and weeks before or after July 1, if they can negotiate it with the outgoing tenants. Costs skyrocket for the day itself, thanks not only to demand but also the fact that July 1 is a statutory holiday—meaning movers are owed time and a half.

During moving season, his crew of 30 movers and eight trucks are in constant rotation. Every other moving company—even the bad ones—are booked solid. Many people opt for DIY moves, with offers of beer and pizza to friends in exchange for the extra limbs. In many cases, appliances belong to the renter and not the landlord; teams of two sway with each backwards step as they ease washers and dryers down from 3-story walk-ups. For Painchaud, it’s the most lucrative time of year but it’s also deeply exhausting. “I can’t wait for July 15,” he says.

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