August 23, 2019

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Fix-up needed for 24 Sussex Drive

Editorial

It’s high time Canada had a presentable official residence for its prime minister.

The mouldering old pile at 24 Sussex Drive needs $10 million or $15 million of work to get the asbestos out, modernize the plumbing and wiring, fix the roof and patch up the limestone exterior. But even then, it won’t be much good. It was built 150 years ago — about the time of Confederation — as a lumber baron’s family home, not a prime minister’s official residence.

No government wants to touch the problem because it seems too much like a vanity project for the prime minister of the day. The result is that all our prime ministers for the foreseeable future will have no safe, convenient place to live and no good site for entertaining distinguished visitors. This will drag on until one of our political parties comes up with a plan and the public accepts it.

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It’s high time Canada had a presentable official residence for its prime minister.

The mouldering old pile at 24 Sussex Drive needs $10 million or $15 million of work to get the asbestos out, modernize the plumbing and wiring, fix the roof and patch up the limestone exterior. But even then, it won’t be much good. It was built 150 years ago — about the time of Confederation — as a lumber baron’s family home, not a prime minister’s official residence.

No government wants to touch the problem because it seems too much like a vanity project for the prime minister of the day. The result is that all our prime ministers for the foreseeable future will have no safe, convenient place to live and no good site for entertaining distinguished visitors. This will drag on until one of our political parties comes up with a plan and the public accepts it.

The Canadian prime ministers’ residence, 24 Sussex Drive. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian press files)

The Canadian prime ministers’ residence, 24 Sussex Drive. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian press files)

Canadians need not shed any tears over 24 Sussex Drive if it is torn down and replaced. The government acquired it more or less inadvertently in 1950 in the course of assembling riverbank land near Parliament Hill, then sent Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent to live in it just to find a use for it. Its historic resonance is thin and its beauty unremarkable.

Prime Minister Trudeau and his family have been living across the road at a smaller house on the grounds of the Governor General’s residence. That solves his problem of finding a safe, convenient place to live, but it does not deal with the country’s need for a presentable residence for all its future prime ministers.

It should be possible for a government to start an official residence project that will take so long to complete that it probably cannot benefit the prime minister who starts it. It should be possible to draw up a specification showing what is needed in such an official residence and then devise the most cost-effective way of finding or building it.

Canadians need not shed any tears over 24 Sussex Drive if it is torn down and replaced. The government acquired it more or less inadvertently in 1950 in the course of assembling riverbank land near Parliament Hill, then sent Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent to live in it just to find a use for it. Its historic resonance is thin and its beauty unremarkable.

The White House in Washington, 10 Downing Street in London and the Élysée Palace in Paris provide examples of what uses might be accommodated in a Canadian prime ministerial residence. It can be a place for official entertaining. It can be a place for staff meetings. It must at least be a place to keep any future prime minister, with spouse and children, comfortably housed and safe from harm.

The current prime minister, the leader of the opposition and some former prime ministers of both political stripes should be invited to join in the planning. The target date for completion should be far enough in the future that at least one election will be held first. A juried architectural competition could be held once the government has decided on a site and a list of purposes.

The plan should allow for the peculiarities of Canada and its system of government. We are a federal, bilingual and multicultural country, vast and diverse, whose prime minister must serve all regions. We already have a monarch, conveniently far away in Britain, and we don’t need another one. We are a polite, self-effacing nation that aims to live in peace with all. The plan for the prime minister’s residence should help the government to run efficiently. It should also make an interesting statement about Canada and help shape every prime minister to fit the country.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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