July 1 Is Day for Mass, Messy Moves in Montreal
By David George-Cosh, WSJ, June 28, 2013
MONTREAL—To most Canadians, the first of July is a day spent celebrating Canada Day. Except in Montreal, where everybody is too busy moving.
Rooted in centuries of tradition, July 1 is the day tens of thousands of Montrealers move to new homes—an annual rite of passage for Canada’s second-biggest city.
It’s also one big municipal headache.
Moving vans clog residential streets and compete for sidewalk space. Breakdowns are common. Friends scramble to recruit able-bodied helpers. Treasure hunters roam the city, looking for furniture, appliances or other gems thrown out, or abandoned in haste.
"You have this chain reaction of disasters that if one person has a long move, four people can’t move in," said Simon Leblanc, a sales manager for Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox gaming system and veteran of four Moving Day moves. Stressed moving companies don’t like to wait around. "If you don’t want to lose your truck, you have to make some really quick decisions," Mr. Leblanc said.
The frenzy began in the mid-18th century, when a requirement to move on a certain, single day was viewed as a way to save tenants from being put out on the streets in the middle of Quebec’s bitter winters.
In 1973, the Quebec government formalized July 1 as the day that annual rental agreements can begin.
These days, however, the law allows leases to begin and end any day of the year. But shaking tradition is tough. “It was good for the landlords and the tenants,” said Genevieve Trudel, a representative of the Quebec Housing Board.
Most rental agreements still start on July 1.
Movers, amateurs and professionals alike, in this city of 1.65 million, have long taken advantage of the crunch. They jack up prices for the day and require customers to book trucks up to six months in advance.
Andre Bilodeau, who worked as a mover for 12 years, recalls one recent Moving Day when four trucks were parked in the driveway of one residence. Tempers flared in the building’s elevators, and movers mixed up furniture, loading some of it onto the wrong vehicles.
Jonathan Painchaud, owner of Bust a Move Moving, has all four of his moving trucks booked for 18 jobs on the big day. Every year he tries to organize a plan of attack—some moves have begun as early as 4:30 in the morning.
Because of the demand, he raises his hourly rates to C$139, from about C$89 in the winter. Mr. Painchaud estimates that his company takes in about 15% of its annual revenue during the first week in July.
Out-of-towners are known to get in on the action.
James Stram, from Albany, N.Y., heads to Montreal each year in his blue cargo van to help people move. Mr. Stram can earn C$500 on July 1, working 7 a.m. through 2 p.m., connecting with people responding to the ads he puts online. He says he is often tipped in beer.
"There’s always going to be big moving companies with dollies and three or four guys moving people," Mr. Stram said. "But I think there are a lot of people doing what I’m doing now to get a few extra bucks."
Amateur help comes with risks. One Moving Day about three years ago, Mr. Stram couldn’t fit a refrigerator through a door, so he tried to gently lower it from the emergency escape. The power cord on the appliance got snagged, and the fridge briefly dangled three stories up.
Estimates vary, but about 67,000 households in Quebec move on July 1, a “very large” proportion of whom are in Montreal, said Patrice Lavoie, a spokesman with Hydro-Quebec, the provincial power company. It adds 80 temporary workers to meet the various demands brought on by Moving Day.
The power company’s busiest day, however, is July 2. “That’s when customers who forgot to let us know about their move get in touch,” Mr. Lavoie said.
The Montreal borough of Ville-Marie hires extra workers for the days around Moving Day to patrol the city’s streets and alleyways looking for bulky objects to cart away.
It’s a field day for junk hunters and scavengers. Mr. Bilodeau, the former mover, said he has picked up televisions, keyboards and, one year, a brand-new bike.
"The sidewalks around McGill wind up looking like IKEA’s 2010 Fall catalog," said Drew Grassby, a fourth-year student at McGill University.
One Domino’s Pizza store in the city’s trendy Plateau area hires extra staff to handle the surge in demand on the big day. The chain offers its annual “Moving Day” special—a large, two-topping pizza for C$10—about half the normal price.
"It’s the second-biggest day of the year for us, right behind the Super Bowl," said Jillul Islam, assistant manager of the Domino’s store.