Politics

Conservatives accuse Liberals of misleading Canadians on Harrington Lake renovations

Conservatives say they aren’t opposed to the federal government carrying out repairs at the prime minister's Harrington Lake residence — but they are accusing the Liberals of burying the details and avoiding scrutiny.
The prime minister's official country residence at Harrington Lake, Que. The 5.4-acre property includes four buildings: the main house, the staff cottage, the upper guest cottage and the lower guest cottage. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Conservatives say they're not opposed to the federal government carrying out repairs to the prime minister's lakeside retreat at Harrington Lake — but they are accusing the Liberals of burying the details and avoiding scrutiny.

Conservative MP Corey Tochor hammered home the point during a hearing of the House of Commons special committee on the COVID-19 pandemic earlier today.

"All Canadians agree that the prime ministers require suitable accommodation," Tochor said. "So why did the government simply not tell Canadians that the Harrington cottage needed to be rebuilt and massively expanded?

"Canadians feel misled on this. You were not clear on what the expenses were, how large of an expansion it was."

Harrington Lake, the prime minister's secondary residence in Chelsea, Que., has been in the news since CBC inquired about renovations quietly being conducted there. The National Capital Commission, the Crown agency that maintains the properties, said it had allocated $8.6 million to renovate and rehabilitate Harrington Lake; those costs had not been disclosed before.

WATCH: A Conservative MP questions the Liberals about Harrington Lake renovations

Conservative MP Corey Tochor questioned Government Services Minister Anita Anand during the virtual House of Commons on Tuesday. 2:38

A further breakdown showed $6.1 million had been spent on the main cottage and $2.5 million on rehabilitating and moving the caretaker's house or farmhouse. Trudeau also took heat recently for spending the Easter holiday there with his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, and their three kids after Quebec public health officials urged Ontarians not to cross the border to visit their summer cottages while the province struggles with one of the country's worst COVID-19 outbreaks.

"Was there something in particular that the government did not want Canadians to know?" Tochor asked. "Or is secrecy all that this government knows how to do?"

Liberals say renovation costs were disclosed

Minister of Public Services and Procurement Anita Anand said the cost of the upgrades was not withheld from the public.

"This information was and has been public since 2018," she said. "There is no effort to hide information from the public in this regard."

The government routinely discloses information in reports and spending documents tabled in Parliament that often number hundreds of pages.

Anand also said the NCC is an independent organization and it makes such decisions without government interference.

Harrington Lake is protected under a federal heritage designation. A 2017 audit found it hadn't seen any repairs since 2005, and a lot of work would be needed to restore the building to good condition. The NCC said Canada's six official residences required a one-time injection of $83 million over 10 years to address maintenance issues that have been deferred for several years.

Conservatives won't share the blame 

Conservative critic for the National Capital Commission Pierre Poilievre told CBC News that Trudeau needs to take personal responsibility for the lack of disclosure, adding he finds it hard to believe the prime minister wasn't consulted on the repairs.

"I don't have a problem with the prime minister having a country residence," Poilievre said. "If they go to your standard resort or campsite, they're going to be talking politics with everybody and their dog."

But Poilievre said Canadians expect the government to be open about its spending and to not waste money on "luxuries" like an interim cottage.

Both Harrington Lake and the prime minister's official residence at 24 Sussex descended into critical states of disrepair under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper and previous Liberal governments. CBC asked Poilievre if the Conservatives accept some responsibility for the condition of Canada's official residences. Poilievre called that suggestion a "convenient distraction" or a "fig leaf" for people who want to protect Trudeau from accountability.

When did PM home repairs become controversial?

Several historians and architects who spoke with CBC News decried the state of Canada's official residences. Historian James Stewart said the issue of upkeep became politicized when Pierre Trudeau came to power, something he documents in his recent book Being Prime Minister.

Alterations that Margaret Trudeau made to Stornoway and then 24 Sussex between 1979 and 1983 caused an uproar. And Pierre Trudeau came in for heavy scrutiny when he added a pool to 24 Sussex; the costs of the pool soared to $200,000 (more than $1 million today.) The expenditure came during the 1970s, a time of straitened federal finances in Canada.

Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau pose for photographers at 24 Sussex, residence of the PM in Ottawa, on April 16, 1982. ((Ron Poling/Canadian Press))

The senior Trudeau defended the spending, saying party donors covered the expense. He refused to disclose who those donors were, however. The opposition seized on this and argued political donations are eligible for tax refunds — and so, in the end, the cost of the pool would be underwritten by taxpayers.

Since then, stories about spending on Canada's official residences have appeared regularly in the news. The media and Canadians, Stewart said, share the responsibility for hyping stories about repairs and renovations.

"Canadians themselves have to accept some of the responsibility," Stewart said. "They seem to begrudge the money that needs to be spent to keep government officials in a residence that is befitting of a G7 (nation).

"Canadians have resented this for some time."

About the Author

David Thurton is a national reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He's worked for CBC in Fort McMurray, the Maritimes and in Canada's Arctic.

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