Porta-potties fill Montreal bathroom void caused by COVID-19 closures

Move over orange cones, those blue and grey portable toilets are the newest installations in town, and thanks to the pandemic, they’ve been proliferating.

City says at peak of pandemic, 139 portable toilets were installed across 14 boroughs

The new normal? Porta-potties dot the city, as the COVID-19 pandemic has closed access to many public buildings — and their washrooms — leaving people with nowhere to go. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Move over orange cones, porta-potties are the newest installations in town, and thanks to the pandemic, they've been proliferating. 

As stores, restaurants and city buildings shut down without notice in mid-March, an essential, often overlooked service closed with them: publicly accessible bathrooms. 

As Montrealers come out of months of confinement, they are flocking to the city's parks, pedestrian-designated thoroughfares and elsewhere, but access to toilets remains limited. 

The solution, at least temporarily? Porta-potties.

Sanivac, a sanitation business which rents out portable toilets, says its business has doubled during the pandemic. 

At the company headquarters in Notre-Dame-de-l'Île-Perrot, logistics co-ordinator Brian Guérard shows off the stock. 

Column after column of grey and blue portable toilets: some outfitted with only a toilet seat, others with sinks, urinals and electricity hook-ups. All feature that porta-potty staple: the electric-blue deodorizing liquid.

"We have about 1,500 toilets on standby, and on the road, we have about four or five thousand," says Guérard.

The majority of the toilets go off to construction sites, but some go to businesses and various places designated by the City of Montreal.

Brian Guérard, a logistics co-ordinator with SaniVac, says his porta-potty business has doubled since the pandemic began. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Jarry Park flush with porta-potties

On a sunny June day, visitors to Jarry Park would be hard-pressed to miss the long lines at each of the dozen or so porta-potties recently installed.

Matrec, the company which supplied the toilets, says it, too, has seen a surge in rental demands.

Along with the rental comes maintenance, normally done about once a week, depending on where the toilet is located.

"Now some clients want the toilets disinfected five to six times per day," says Jessyca Clément, the district manager for Matrec.

The companies providing the portable toilets say their popularity is all pandemic-related. The importance of a clean, functional place to go is suddenly well-understood.

"It was a necessity, but it wasn't always a priority," says Guérard.

"Since the crisis, it's become more of a priority for a lot of people. The City of Montreal has jumped on that bandwagon."

Jarry Park has more than a dozen porta-potties installed in various locations. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Perma-potties for homeless Montrealers?

Two porta-potties sit outside the Old Brewery Mission — a request from the organization that was quickly fulfilled by the city.

More can be found outside Accueil Bonneau, as well as other organizations catering to homeless Montrealers.

"When COVID hit Montreal with the force that it did back in March, it didn't come with a procedures manual," says Matthew Pearce, the Old Brewery Mission's executive director.

"If we had to reduce the population inside the shelter, then there's going to be a large number of people who are out in the city, and amongst their needs are going to be access to washrooms."

According to Lezlie Lowe, a journalist and author of No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail our Private Needs, while most people tend to make do with the lack of public toilets by going into businesses to use theirs, the homeless often don't have that option.

"I have looked at the COVID pandemic as this really amazing opportunity for people to have their eyes opened to the everyday situation that many, many people face, which is lack of access [to bathrooms]," she said.

Sanivac, which provides portable toilets to the Old Brewery Mission, sends a team out daily to evacuate the waste and sanitize the interior of the toilets. 

Pearce says the addition of the porta-potties may be extended past the pandemic.

"They're going to stay there for as long as the need is there, and we may have found that it's actually a good idea to have these kind of facilities," Pearce said.

"I think this may become not a porta-potty but maybe a perma-potty."

A move toward more public toilets?

While porta-potties solve an immediate need, critics say they aren't the perfect solution. Many of the ones currently installed are not fully accessible, particularly for people who use wheelchairs.

"So many municipalities talk the talk about livability and walkability, pedestrian-friendly cities and multiple-aged cities. All of those things require toilets," says Lowe.

"I think COVID could be this moment where we really start to notice that need."

The City of Montreal says at one point during the pandemic, there were as many as 139 porta-potties installed in various boroughs. 

City spokesperson Gonzalo Nunez points to the four self-cleaning toilets near the downtown core as a more permanent solution — a popular one so far.

"They are widely used. Depending on their location, we are talking about 80 to 100 cleanings per day," compared to about 60 cleanings daily in similar installations in Europe, Nunez said. The toilets' self-cleaning mechanism is triggered after every use.

When the $3-million project was first announced in 2017, 12 toilets were to be installed. With just four, the city has fallen well short of that target, however, three more are to be installed by 2022.


Sarah Leavitt


Sarah Leavitt is a multimedia journalist with CBC who loves hearing people's stories. Tell her yours: or on Twitter @SarahLeavittCBC.

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