Spending on official residences is a 'warm topic' — and always has been

Some things never change in Canadian politics — certainly not our recurring debates over how much we should spend on the official residences of our leaders.

Debates over spending on official residences are as old as the buildings themselves

The prime minister's official country retreat at Harrington Lake in Gatineau Park, Que. on August 15, 2012.
The federal government is spending $8.6 million on renovation and construction at Harrington Lake, the official summer residence of the Canadian prime minister. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Little in life is certain these days, but there's one thing you can always count on in the nation's capital: eventually, a debate will erupt over public spending (or a lack of it) on the prime minister's official residences.

It's a tale as old and shopworn as the buildings themselves.

Its latest chapter concerns $8.6 million in renovations to Harrington Lake, the official summer residence of the prime minister, first reported by CBC News. As subsequently reported by the Globe and Mail, a good chunk of that bill was for the construction of a new, larger "farmhouse" to replace a decrepit, smaller "caretaker's house".

This future guest accommodation will house Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family while work is done on the century-old main cottage, which hasn't undergone any major renovations in over a decade.

It isn't the only government residential property badly in need of work. The PM's official residence at 24 Sussex Drive has gone unoccupied ever since Trudeau was sworn in as its latest tenant. The National Capital Commission, which is responsible for the house, has called it a "fire hazard" and says it is in dire need of $83 million in repairs.

That made 24 Sussex a political hot potato; no recent prime minister has wanted to take the political hit of spending that much public money on his own home. Harrington Lake — which needs fewer repairs and is tucked away some 23 kilometres from Parliament Hill — hasn't been as much trouble for prime ministers, politically.

But then Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre got involved. He raised the alarm over the spending when he asked on Twitter whether Trudeau was building "himself a brand new lakeside mansion at Harrington Lake with our money ..." This week, he told CBC News that Canadians expect the prime minister not to "waste money unnecessarily on lavish and unnecessary luxuries like an interim cottage."

He and other opposition members also have raised questions about the government's transparency on this spending — though the political points have always been scored primarily by blurring the distinction between the public ownership of these properties and the private occupation of them.

And that's been the case since before the prime minister even had an official residence.

A 'warm topic' — in 1928

Harrington Lake and 24 Sussex only became official residences in the 1950s. Before that, prime ministers had their own private homes.

But the government still had to cover expenses to maintain the residences of the governor general — Rideau Hall in Ottawa and the Citadelle in Quebec City. Though those expenses were related to an apolitical office, that didn't prevent the arguments over them from becoming political.

Such a debate occurred nearly a century ago in May 1928, one the Vancouver Sun called "acrimonious".

Headline in the Saskatoon Daily Star from May 1928. (CBC)

"Rideau Hall Repairs Are Warm Topic," said a headline in the Saskatoon Daily Star.

At issue were a few opaque line items in the federal government's public works expenditures: $150,000 for the Citadelle and $110,000 for Rideau Hall, altogether the equivalent of some $4 million in today's money.

Was it for repairs to the historically-important structures or frivolous spending on furniture for the Marquess of Willingdon, the governor general? Part of the money had already been spent, reported the Windsor Star, while the rest "will be spent as Lady Willingdon does her shopping."

The original caption of this image from 1926 reads: "Lady Willingdon's penchant for mauve and purple is apparent in cushions, table covers and various small appointments in Rideau Hall. The wall and rug are neutral toned; the curtains crushed strawberry." (Toronto Public Library)

The debate, which covered about 26 pages in Hansard, included many questions about what the money was for — along with repeated (and familiar) claims that the government was not being forthcoming with the details.

But the most heated rhetoric had to do with the legitimacy of the spending itself. Was this the best way to spend public funds?

'The ugliest thing that could be imagined'

J.S. Woodsworth, leader of the Independent Labour Party and future head of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner to the NDP, objected to Canadians being on the hook for maintaining the governor general in high style.

"I do not see why we should attempt to provide for a style of living, in respect of the governor general's quarters, that is not in conformity with the ideals of the vast majority of the Canadian people ... Do we need curtains, carpets and elaborate furniture in order to maintain a historic landmark?"

Henri Bourassa, a fiery nationalist MP from Quebec, called the residence in the Citadelle "the ugliest thing that could be imagined. It desecrates the [Citadelle] and honours neither the governor general nor the people of Canada."

After a long debate over which walls of the Citadelle needed repairing, Conservative MP James Chaplin suggested that "some of these curtains be hung over the holes in the wall."

The Citadelle is the governor general's official residence in Quebec City — "the ugliest thing that could be imagined," according to Henri Bourassa in 1928. (Jacques Boissinot / Canadian Press)

Woodsworth read out a list of some of the expenses related to the maintenance of the governor general's residence in Ottawa, including $189 for toast racks, $288 for "16 dozen doylies" (sic) and $362.50 for a "radiola".

"I have ventured to read these items simply because I think the people who pay for these things ought to know the extent to which we are furnishing Rideau Hall," he said. "Some of us in our own homes are still using the china which we had when we were married and some of us have not even been able to afford a radio.

"Yet this is the scale we are maintaining for the upkeep of two individuals who happen to be our guests here for the time.

"In reality, only a very small class, a very exclusive class, gets whatever benefit there is in an expenditure of this kind. It is only a few people who can go to Rideau Hall … As long as there are so many under-privileged in this country, I question whether we are justified in adding still further to the advantages of the over-privileged classes."

J.S. Woodsworth, standing in middle, objected to spending on the governor general's residences in 1928 when many in the country were in need of support from the federal government. (Yousuf Karsh fonds/National Archives of Canada)

For solicitor general Lucien Cannon, the debate was venturing into dangerous territory.

"We are living in a period where appeals to demagogy are very often heard," the Quebec Liberal MP said. "Social unrest is frequently produced by appeals such as those we have heard in this house with regard to laces, curtains, extravagance."

When Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King said that the government was only responding to the wishes of the governor general, it brought opposition leader R.B. Bennett to his feet. It was unconstitutional and completely inappropriate to bring the governor's general views into the debate, Bennett said.

(There was some irony in King's move — only two years earlier, he had won an election running against the notion that the governor general should interfere in how Canadians decided to run their country.)

'In a very shabby condition'

The two lines of defence adopted by the government in 1928 are the same that have been employed over the subsequent 92 years: Canada's national dignity demands respectable digs for its leaders and, after all, these places are dumps.

The Citadelle had fallen into a state of disrepair during the First World War when public money was needed elsewhere. "The condition became so bad during the period of the war," said John Elliott, minister of public works, "that the place could not be occupied."

Rideau Hall, meanwhile, was in such a sorry state that when James Robb, the minister of finance, paid a visit, he "found that the rugs throughout the house and the furniture generally was in a very shabby condition." When large events were held, Robb said, chinaware, glassware and cutlery had to be borrowed from the Château Laurier hotel or from the Rideau Club.

"Would any member of this Parliament desire to have [foreign dignitaries] leave Ottawa with the impression that Canada was down at heels?" he asked.

William Irvine, a United Farmers of Alberta MP, joked (according to the Canadian Press correspondent) that he wanted "to see Rideau Hall provided with so many knives and forks that when parliamentarians are entertained there, there will be a few left."

Irvine said he was pleased that the debate over these expenses would reveal to Canadians the cost of their monarchism.

"The more people are ruled, the better they seem to like it," he said. "They seem to desire to bow and scrape before people. Well, if they enjoy that, let them pay for it. Why should we object?"

"If we are to keep an official residence for the governor general," Robb argued, "we should at least maintain it in such a condition that when a representative [of Australia] comes here, or a representative of New Zealand, of the Irish Free State or of the mother country, we shall not be ashamed of it, and the visitors will have occasion to go back and say: 'Well, after all, Canada is a pretty good country — as good as our own'."

Rideau Hall is the governor general's official residence in Ottawa. In 1928, its condition was called "very shabby." (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In the end, the expenditures for both the Citadelle and Rideau Hall were approved and the House moved on to the next line item. It would not be the last time politicians would debate this sort of spending — something predicted by Chubby Power, a Liberal MP and future cabinet minister.

Agreeing to someone's suggestion that the furniture expense, deemed to be $70,000 of the total, must be made to last for a century, Power remarked that he had "no doubt a hundred years hence, those who follow us will be protesting in the same way as hon. members are tonight against an expenditure of such an amount of money as $70,000 for furniture."

He was right. On this issue, it appears there are no new arguments left to be made — just the same ones all over again. When it comes to debating the costs of housing our leaders, what's old is new again — unlike our increasingly dilapidated official residences.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.