Construction work starts on 24 Sussex — but its future is still in doubt
Advocates lament sorry state of crumbling residence while government remains tight-lipped
Construction work has just started on 24 Sussex Drive, the prime minister's official residence. The building has fallen into a state of deep disrepair after years of neglect and inaction.
But the National Capital Commission (NCC), the federal body responsible for official residences, said the new activity shouldn't be interpreted as a commitment to fully restoring the 150-year-old property that has housed ten of the country's prime ministers.
The NCC told CBC News this work must be done regardless of what the government ultimately decides to do with the heritage property.
Work started last week on stripping the property of asbestos and removing "obsolete mechanical, heating and electrical systems," a NCC spokesperson said. The rehabilitation work is expected to take about a year.
The construction activity follows the commission's decision to formally shutter the residence for health and safety reasons.
While the Gothic Revival-style home, perched high above the Ottawa River, has been unoccupied for years, the property was still being used by some staff until its 2022 closure. It was also used to host garden parties on the home's expansive two-hectare grounds.
But the once-stately property is now infested with rodents. The property also has been deemed a fire hazard because the property uses outdated "knob and tube" wiring from another era.
A 2021 report concluded the residence is in "critical" condition and pegged the cost to complete "deferred maintenance" at $36 million. The report set the home's "current replacement value" at $40.1 million.
The fate of the 34-room mansion is in the hands of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet.
Despite repeated pleas from heritage advocates, Trudeau has so far signalled he has no plans to save the building.
He's lived since 2015 at Rideau Cottage on the grounds of the Governor General's residence — a relatively small home originally built for an aide.
The sorry state of 24 Sussex has heritage enthusiasts feeling dejected.
David Flemming is the chair of Heritage Ottawa's advocacy committee, a group determined to protect the capital's built history.
He said it's "atrocious" that Canada, a G7 country with a $2 trillion economy, doesn't have a functioning official residence for the head of government.
"The politicians making the decision — this is not their building. This belongs to the people of Canada," Flemming told CBC News.
"Having a residence for the prime minister is just the cost of doing business as a nation. The truth is we just don't hold our built heritage in high regard in this country."
Flemming said his group has written letters to Trudeau asking him to make a call on the home's fate but their pleas have been repeatedly ignored.
"All we want is for something to be done. That's it," he said. "We just want him to make a decision. Whether it's the prime minister's residence or not, it should be kept as a public building."
Flemming had pitched former governor general David Johnston as a neutral arbiter to lead a panel of experts to decide on the home's future.
Given the recent controversy over Johnston's role as special rapporteur on foreign interference, Johnston's likely "not the one now," Flemming said. But the idea still stands, he added — a distinguished panel of non-partisan people should decide how best to restore the dilapidated landmark.
Christina Cameron, a professor and former Canada Research Chair in Built Heritage at Université de Montréal, agrees that 24 Sussex can and must be saved.
She last saw the home's interior in 2018. At the time, she said, the property seemed salvageable.
"There's no reason why that house couldn't be rehabilitated," she said.
"I think it's really sad. I've watched it over the years and no prime minister wants to be seen investing in something for himself. I don't know how we break the logjam but it's important that we do because it's a home that's critical to our national story, to our narrative as a country.
"So many people important to world history have crossed that doorstep, and we've all seen them pictured on that doorstep."
Cameron said Trudeau should commit to restoring the property and dictate that the work be done on a deferred timeline so that it's only available for the next occupant.
Trudeau could preserve history while neutralizing claims that it's a self-serving decision, Cameron said. Or, she said, the home could be re-purposed for public use. Either choice would make it politically palatable for the current government, she said.
"I think the worst thing is to just not do anything," she said.
The residence has become something of a political hot potato. The multi-million-dollar restoration price tag has deterred both Trudeau and his predecessor, Stephen Harper, from doing anything about a home that dates back to Ottawa's days as a lumber town.
Trudeau said in April the government is working with "public servants as they chart a path forward for the official residences."
A spokesperson for Trudeau did not comment on 24 Sussex's future Friday, referring questions to Public Services and Procurement Minister Helena Jaczek.
A spokesperson for Jaczek told CBC News that they "don't have much of an update on 24 Sussex."
"We continue to work closely with the National Capital Commission to develop a plan for the future of 24 Sussex Drive," the spokesperson said.
At least one former resident, former prime minister Jean Chretien, has said the home is "an embarrassment to the nation" that should be restored.
Maureen McTeer, former prime minister Joe Clark's wife and author of a book on Canada's official residences, has said the home isn't worth saving. The home's interior was gutted decades ago and it's lost its historical value, she said in a 2015 interview.
Reached by email Thursday, McTeer said she had no comment on the home's future.
Canada is an outlier among its allies when it comes to official residence repairs.
The British equivalent to 24 Sussex — 10 Downing Street — recently went through an extensive renovation.
The White House was overhauled under former president Donald Trump.
The Lodge, the Australian prime minister's official Canberra residence, received millions of dollars in restoration work in 2016.
Stornoway, the official home of the leader of the Official Opposition in Ottawa's leafy Rockcliffe Park neighbourhood, is also in good condition — it received tens of thousands of dollars in repairs as recently as 2020.
While 24 Sussex has been left to rot, opposition leaders like Rona Ambrose, Andrew Scheer, Erin O'Toole, Candice Bergen and Pierre Poilievre have made use of Stornoway — an early 20th century home built by a prominent grocer that later served as a temporary home-in-exile for the Dutch Royal Family during the Second World War.
"You know, the federal government does have a good track record when they do decide to do restorations. We've got some top-notch architects and conservation people," Flemming said.
"It just takes some political will — and there's none of that right now."