Fate of prime minister's residence up in the air as staff move out due to hazards

OTTAWA — The Canadian government has spent billions trying to solve the country's housing crisis. But when it comes to fixing the prime minister's own crumbling official residence? That's a different story.

The picturesque mansion, known by its address of 24 Sussex Drive, spans 34 rooms and is tucked beside the Ottawa River. Built in 1868, it's been the designated home of the country's prime ministers since 1950.

It's split into private and public areas, allowing the prime minister's family to live in part of the home while official events are held in a separate space.

That's an ideal set-up given a head of government's hosting duties. But the country's current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, hasn't lived there since he was a kid.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper moved out after losing the 2015 federal election to the Liberals, and Trudeau opted not to move into the home where he lived as a boy when his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was prime minister — instead settling in at a residence on the nearby grounds of Rideau Hall.

The issues plaguing 24 Sussex today are the same that kept Trudeau from his homecoming. Only worse.

A 2021 report by the National Capital Commission, the body that manages the country's official residences, said the registered heritage property has gone without "significant investment" for more than 60 years and that "expensive and urgent repair" was needed.

The price tag: $37 million.

Disrepair has gotten so severe that the building is now being closed off to all staff. The commission announced this week that "continuously aging and worsening materials and systems" require "more significant actions" to deter fire hazards, water damage and air quality issues. Removal of asbestos and "obsolete" systems will begin next spring.

The idea that 24 Sussex is now too perilous to set foot in has renewed questions over what the federal government's long-term plans are for the building. Opposition parties want answers.

"When people are struggling to make ends meet, it’s hard to justify spending millions to renovate an official residence," NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in a written statement Friday.

"But a decision just needs to be made: the neglected renovations, delays and indecisiveness about what to do with the building is what has caused the run-up in expenses."

Julie Vignola, a critic for the Bloc Québécois, said in a written statement that successive Liberal and Conservative governments failed to spend the money to ensure the residence remained in good shape, which has driven up the cost of renovations to nearly $40 million.

A request for comment from Procurement Minister Helena Jaczek, whose portfolio includes the NCC, has yet to be returned.

For David Flemming, chair of the advocacy committee at Heritage Ottawa, 24 Sussex is a case of "demolition by neglect" and an issue his group has been calling for action on for years.

He said it's common to see private owners and developers allow buildings with heritage value to fall into a state of disrepair. "It's a bit embarrassing to have your national government do something like this."

He acknowledged the optics of the federal government spending millions to fix up the prime minister's residence may not look great, but it's "the cost of doing business as a country."

Trudeau alluded to those optics in a 2018 CBC interview. "No prime minister wants to spend a penny of taxpayer dollars on upkeeping that house," he said at the time.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2022.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press