Bon Déménagement! Quebec's July 1

For most of Canada today marks the eve of Canada Day. Tomorrow, millions will attend or watch national celebrations big and small across the country. In Quebec though, June 30 is when most leases end. July 1 is Moving Day, not Canada Day. Quebecois prefer to celebrate their national holiday, St Jean Baptiste Day, on June 24 since not only does it reflect Quebec's unique cultural history, but because so many are busy on Canada (Moving) Day. Some have suggested that placing Moving Day on July 1 is a conspiratorial snub from separatist Quebec to federalists and the “Rest of Canada.” Of course more reasonable voices remind us that it was a Quebec Liberal government that made the change in the 1970s, spearheaded by their Justice Minister, Jérôme Choquette. Let's take it a step further explore the actual debate in the Assemblé Nationale surrounding the change.

First, we should note that the decision to have a Moving Day on July 1, or its previous date May 1, is a long standing Quebec tradition. Unlike the rest of Canada, Quebec law is based on the Civil Code. As the former colony of New France, Quebec's legal traditions extend back to 1664 when King Louis XIV declared that the 1580 civil law of Paris would extend to his North American subjects. Quebec's civil code sets it apart from the rest of Canada whose legal tradition is based on British common law. It is why Quebec requires special representation on Canada's Supreme Court, to ensure the highest court in the land fully understands their separate legal system.

In 1750, New France Indendant François Bigot passed a bylaw stating that May 1 marked moving day for the colony's residents. It was ensure that no one was evicted during the cold winter months as well as a response to changing demographics of New France. A majority of the population were tenants and renters, as opposed to land owners, a trend which continues in Montreal to this day. May 1 was likely chosen because it was in Spring, marking an end to Winter and it was six months after the beginning of winter “hibernation,” November 1. Both also fell on holidays, November 1 was All Saint's Day, while May 1 was 'la fête du muguet', or Lily Day, marking the beginning of Spring and May 1, 1560, when French King Charles XI was so charmed after being given some Lily of the Valley, he declared that every May 1 he would hand out lilies to the ladies of the court.

Bigot's decision effectively established May 1 as Moving Day, a tradition which lasted for centuries. When Quebec politicians drafted a much needed update to their Civil Code in 1866, among the new articles was article 1642, stating that “the lease or hire of a house or part of a house when no time is specified for its duration is held to be annual terminating on the first day of May of each year when the rent is at so much a year.” As a result, almost all leases ended on April 30 and began on May 1, officially codifying what had already become a widely accepted practise.

Over the next century, several common complaints were raised about the awkwardness of the date. There was often poor weather in early May. Students were still in school and some families were forced to interrupt their studies near the end of classes. May 1 was no longer a holiday, meaning that families had to take a day off work to move. So by the 1970s, Quebec's government finally decided to update the legislation surrounding leases.

Leading the charge was Minister of Justice Jérôme Choquette. He rose in the Assemblé Nationale in September of 1972 to introduce Bill 59 that would update Quebec's rental laws, part of which included moving the default start-date of leases from May 1 to July 1. Any lease without a defined start date would automatically begin May 1, and any lease that expired would be automatically renewed for twelve months. They chose July 1, he told his fellow members, because it was between most schools closing in mid-June and the weeks of July and August when most workers took vacations.

That did not satisfy one of the opponents to the Bill, Bell Canada. Michael Sheehan from the Canadian Association of Telephone Employees objected to the date change. Employees of Bell Canada were tasked with changing some 20,000 phone plans as their clients moved residences. If the date now fell on July 1, Bell Canada employees, as well as numerous other public service employees, would be unable to properly enjoy their summer vacations. They would instead have to spend weeks in June updating phone lines. Sheehan wondered what was the advantage of switching it from May 1?

Choquette replied that there were many good reasons for the change. Not only were they changing Moving Day outside of the student school year, but they could finally address the real problem of the public service employees: that they had to change thousands of customers on one day of the year. The government hoped that by changing the date from May 1, they could break the Quebec tradition of moving on a single day. The new law did not mandate May 1 be the start of a lease, he reminded the Assemblé, it only stated that a lease without a date defaulted to a May 1 start date. Once broken of the habit, he hoped Quebecois would not return to a single moving day at all.

Choquette's new law was next criticized by Robert Burns. Despite his name, Burns was one of the first Parti Quebecois members in the Assemblé Nationale, having been elected by the riding of Maisonneuve in 1970. He told the Minister of Justice that without a publicity campaign, the new law would just push Quebecois to create a new tradition of moving on July 1. As well, the new law should not automatically impose 12-month leases on expired leases, as it would help instill a new tradition of Moving Day on July 1. Again Choquette defended the new legislation. The twelve month leases were a part of the old law and should be carried over to the new one, if only to provide continuity. He repeated that the change to July 1 would interrupt the tradition and that Quebecois could choose to start their lease on any date they wanted.

Burns interrupted the Minister, reminding him that the new moving date would impede Quebecois looking to celebrate Canada Day. “Is that a problem for the Deputy from Maisonneuve?” the Liberal Minister asked in turn. “I wonder,” mused the PQ deputy, “if the Minister was not coming over to our side?” “Perhaps it is unconsciously!” added Union Nationale House Leader, Rémi Paul. Choquette ignored both and the debate switched to the next subject.

The new law was eventually passed in 1974 after several more changes and readings in the Assemblé Nationale. As was feared, Quebecois did change their traditional moving day from May 1 to July 1. Today it is continues to be the date when thousands move residences as leases expire. Still, it is absolutely clear from reading the legislature debates that there was no intention to supplant Canada Day. Instead, Minister Choquette wanted to eliminate the tradition of a yearly Moving Day entirely and believed that changing the date would break the habit. There was a brief exchange over Canada Day, but given that the government aimed to prevent a single Moving Day, they downplayed the overlap. They hoped it would not be a future problem at all.

As we've explored today though, there were historical reasons for having a single Moving Day as well as contemporary concerns during the 1970s behind the change. Even if it had been a PQ government that introduced the change, there were long standing traditions that Moving Day would be on the first day of a month (and usually on a holiday). As Choquette noted, July 1 was after the end of the school year but still left a couple of months of vacation in the summer. The decision to change it had a logical set of reasons behind it, regardless of who introduced it, and should underline that conspiratorial claims are one of the worst forms of history distortion. An easy way to spot them is that their allegations inevitably remove the individual agency and context that influences actual historical decisions. While it may have been a bad decision, since Choquette did not manage to change the Moving Day tradition, it was not an unthinking or petty one.