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It’s been years now since someone actually lived at 24 Sussex Drive, the Prime Minister’s official residence. At least, it’s been years since people lived there. But as a new report in the National Post reveals, the residence has plenty of other occupants. “Attempts to control a significant rodent infestation at the prime minister’s official residence left so many carcasses within the walls and basement that serious questions were raised about the home’s air quality,” Bryan Passifiume wrote.
This is hardly the first sign of decay for the once-grand limestone home, which was completed in 1868. Since then, it’s been neglected by almost everyone who had the privilege of living in it — especially its more recent tenants. National Capital Commission chair Marc Seaman, whose organization is responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of federal properties like 24 Sussex, told reporters last year that the sorry state of the prime minister’s official residence “is a legacy of decades of lack of investment in the properties.”
That legacy includes an electrical system that’s a fire hazard, walls filled with asbestos and mould, and plumbing that fails on a regular basis. According to a recent report from the NCC, it needs $24 million just to cover so-called “urgent repairs,” which include replacing the electrical systems, restoring the building envelope and creating bathrooms and entrances that are actually accessible.
Turning 24 Sussex into something Canadians can actually be proud of will cost far more than that. The reason why it hasn’t it because it’s become an impossibly hot political potato. Both Liberal and Conservative prime ministers have allowed the building to deteriorate, almost certainly because they didn’t want to appear as though they were feathering their own nests. The furious reaction from CPC MPs like Pierre Poilievre to recent upgrades made at Harrington Lake, the prime minister’s official summer residence, bears out those concerns.
So how can we cut this Gordian knot and actually make progress in either repairing or replacing 24 Sussex? It’s simple, really: both Justin Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre should commit to properly funding the necessary improvements and pledge they’ll never spend a night in the upgraded building. By promising not to benefit personally from the changes, they can inoculate themselves against accusations they’re trying to upgrade their own circumstances on the public dime. Both have little to lose here: Trudeau and his family have lived at Rideau Cottage since 2015, and Poilievre should be allergic to the idea of living in government-funded housing — much less a structure that once housed Pierre Trudeau.
The next question is whether to restore and repair 24 Sussex or tear it down and start anew.
The headline on a 2022 column by the Toronto Star’s Althia Raj described it as a “national treasure,” although she conceded it wasn’t exactly an “architectural masterpiece.” Still, Raj argued, it’s “historically significant” and should be salvaged on that basis — and on behalf of Canadians. But as her colleague Susan Delacourt wrote, the house — built in the mid-19th century and formerly home to a lumber baron — wasn’t the official residence for the prime minister until the 1950s. “So we are talking here of 70 years of history — not insignificant, but at least 30 years of it wasted in adequate upkeep and political apologies for its existence.”
Opinion: Both Liberal and Conservative prime ministers have allowed the building to deteriorate, almost certainly because they didn’t want to appear as though they were feathering their own nests, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #CDNpoli
In other words, it’s a dilapidated monument to the political cowardice of our elected leaders, who are more interested in doing what’s popular than doing what’s needed.
And while there’s some value in remembering that, it’s hardly something worth spending millions on. Instead, let’s tear it down and build something that actually inspires us as Canadians. Why not a zero-emissions home featuring the best in Canadian architecture and design, one that showcases the kind of world we’re trying to build?
To borrow from that famous Wayne Gretzky quote, when foreign leaders and dignitaries visit, they should get to see where the puck is going in Canada, not where it’s been.
Doing this would take some courage. But it’s the lack of courage that got us into this pitiful situation in the first place. Now is as good a time as any to change that.