It’s time to move on from 24 Sussex Drive

The federal government plans to spend $36.6 million fixing up a derelict house in Ottawa just in case a future prime minister wants to live in it. This is a poor idea.

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The federal government plans to spend $36.6 million fixing up a derelict house in Ottawa just in case a future prime minister wants to live in it. This is a poor idea.

The government should first decide what Canada needs in the way of a residence for its prime ministers, and then find the most cost-effective way to buy or build what is required.

The government’s National Capital Commission considers the 150-year-old stone house at 24 Sussex Drive to be the prime minister’s residence. But in fact, it has not been the home of the prime minister since Stephen Harper moved out after losing the 2015 election.

Mr. Harper’s successor, Justin Trudeau, who grew up in 24 Sussex Drive while his father was prime minister, refused to move his family into the crumbling mansion. Its kitchen is still used to prepare meals that are carried across Sussex Drive to feed Mr. Trudeau and his family in their home on the grounds of Rideau Hall. Apart from that, the house is unused.

The building needs a lot of work, on account of age and neglect. The NCC estimates it will cost $36.6 million to perform the necessary work to remove asbestos, restore the exterior walls, upgrade plumbing and wiring to modern standards and make other needed improvements.

Former prime ministers have been reluctant to order the required repairs because it seemed like personal self-indulgence.

Canada, however, needs a building in which its prime ministers can live safely and comfortably and receive visitors. The location at 24 Sussex Drive is perfectly suitable, but the decaying old building that stands there is not suitable at all.

The house, built in 1868 by an Ottawa Valley lumber baron, fell into government hands in 1946 when the government was creating a riverbank park on Sussex Drive. Since nobody could figure out what to do with the old house, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent went to live in it in 1951. Governments since then have tried to fix it up, but it is ill-suited to official entertaining and inconvenient as a residence.

Corey Hurren, a sausage-maker and army reservist from western Manitoba, loaded his truck with weapons and ammunition in July 2020 and drove through a locked gate at Rideau Hall looking for Justin Trudeau. The incident served as a stark reminder that the prime minister and family need a house where they are protected from armed and dangerous intruders.

Mr. Trudeau should invite Canada’s five living former prime ministers — two Liberals and three Conservatives — to come up with a plan for housing future prime ministers. They know the needs, because they held the job and used the house. Their participation might help insulate the project from partisan squabbling.

If the NCC goes ahead and spends $36.6 million on renovations, it will be throwing good money after bad. The next government might tear down the newly-renovated mansion or it might feel obliged to keep using it somehow because so much money has been spent on it.

The more logical course will be to decide, in a bipartisan way, what Canada needs as a prime ministerial residence and then invite architects to design the building the country needs. Heritage defenders will inevitably object to demolition of the old wreck; that’s easy for them to do, since no one is requiring them to live in it.

With luck, the result of the quest for a new prime-ministerial dwelling might be a comfortable and attractive official residence that will express Canada’s character and help Canadians take pride in their national capital.

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