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 setup 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 become 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.

“We cannot afford to pay the price for the federal government’s complete lack of accountability,” she said in French.

Procurement Minister Helena Jaczek, whose portfolio includes the NCC, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

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."

Sir Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II have been among 24 Sussex’s illustrious guests.

Flemming acknowledged the optics of the federal government spending millions to fix up the prime minister's residence may not be great, but said 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.

Before he was elected Conservative leader, Pierre Poilievre criticized Trudeau several years ago for renovating another of the prime minister’s residences at Harrington Lake in western Quebec. At the time, he argued the construction wasn‘t done transparently.

Poilievre did not respond Friday to a request for comment about what he thinks should happen to 24 Sussex. He’s currently living with his family in Stornoway, where the Official Opposition leader typically resides.

That home is slightly smaller, only boasting 19 rooms, but like the prime minister’s residence, it’s designed with space to host official functions.

Meanwhile, the NCC said operating 24 Sussex in its current state has cost about $122,000 annually for the past three years.

Flemming said his group would like to see “something” done with the property. Period.

Over the years there have been no shortage of offers to help.

Back in 2015, some suggested that a reality TV renovation show should be the one to give 24 Sussex its much-needed facelift.

In fact, Ben Mulroney, son of former prime minister Brian Mulroney and a past resident himself, was among those who tossed around the idea.

The state of the mansion has become something of a joke in Canadian culture.

When Paul Martin was prime minister in the early 2000s, he took part in a skit with comedian Rick Mercer where they covered one of the windows with plastic using a hair dryer — a DIY trick to keep out the cold.

“It gets a little drafty here in the wintertime,” Martin quipped.

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

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press