Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Rat-Infested, Will Canada’s Most Famous Fixer-Upper Be Replaced?


The saga of 24 Sussex Drive, the derelict onetime official residence of Canada’s prime ministers, took a new turn last week after a news leak signaled that the fate of the home — Canada’s most famous fixer-upper — could soon be decided.

Citing an unnamed official, Radio-Canada reported last week that a government group in charge of figuring out what to do with the uninhabitable and rodent- and asbestos-infested house — which has been abandoned since 2015 — is now leaning toward giving up on it. Instead, the group favors starting over by building a new house at one of two other locations. Alternatively, the group is looking at making Rideau Cottage, where Justin Trudeau moved after becoming prime minister, the permanent home of Canada’s head of government.

While 24 Sussex only became the prime minister’s official home in 1951, the idea of permanently abandoning it was swiftly condemned by some building heritage experts. But political calculations may ultimately decide the proposal’s fate.

Despite 24 Sussex’s symbolic importance, its fall into near ruin has been going on for decades, as I wrote almost five years ago. And the lack of will to reverse its decline comes from a fear of political backlash. As Mr. Trudeau, who lived in the house as a child when his father was prime minister, once said: “No prime minister wants to spend a penny of taxpayer dollars on upkeeping that house.”

[Read: Justin Trudeau’s Official Home: Unfit for a Leader or Anyone Else]

While 24 Sussex was in a dismal state when I wrote that article, with an estimated restoration cost of 38 million Canadian dollars at the time, the situation has become even worse. In 2021, the National Capital Commission, the federal agency whose duties include looking after Canada’s six official residences, rated its condition as “critical” in a report.

“The building systems at 24 Sussex Drive have reached the point of imminent or actual failure and require replacement,” that report warned, adding, “the age and condition of the electrical systems poses a fire hazard, and the plumbing systems have failures on a regular basis.”

In April, The National Post obtained government documents that revealed there was a rodent infestation in the house. So many dead rodents and so much rodent excrement had piled up in its walls, attic and basement, a memo said, that there were “real concerns with air quality.”

After Mr. Trudeau moved into Rideau Cottage in the backyard of Rideau Hall, the governor general’s official home, some of his staff remained working in the kitchen at 24 Sussex, which is across the street. The household kitchen in Rideau Cottage is much smaller and not up to workplace safety standards, so Mr. Trudeau’s meals were ferried across Sussex Drive. But even the cooks were moved out of 24 Sussex last November and the building was officially closed.

The National Capital Commission did not directly answer my questions about the possibility of a new prime minister’s residence at a new location. But in an email, Valérie Dufour, a spokeswoman, said that contractors had been at 24 Sussex since May and that “pre-construction site preparation is complete.” This month, a variety of tasks will begin, including ripping out the “mechanical and electrical systems” there.

She added: “The current project will carry out the work that must be addressed regardless of any decision taken by the government on the future of the residence.”

The Radio-Canada report suggests that the biggest factor in favor of building a new official residence is security. Recent years have seen Parliament surrounded by the rowdy trucker convoy and a gunman kill a soldier on guard at the National War Memorial before then going on a shooting rampage in Parliament. In 2020, a military reservist from Manitoba smashed through the gates of Rideau Hall with a pickup truck before heading on foot toward Rideau Cottage with a revolver, a pistol, a rifle and two shotguns to, he said, arrest Mr. Trudeau. The prime minister was not home.

Among its many security problems, 24 Sussex is just steps from the street, making protection from a car or truck bomb infeasible without turning the residence into a bunker. (Closing the road, which is a major route with no obvious alternative, is not possible.) Retrofitting the house’s roof for protection from drone attacks, it appears, poses similar difficulties.

Even without an official announcement, the suggestion of abandoning 24 Sussex has swiftly met resistance. At a news conference on Friday, a group of heritage experts argued the case for renovating the house instead. Residents near the park that is one of the proposed sites for a new residence have also raised concerns about the loss of public space.

But ultimately the political dynamic that has long stalled dealing with the house may continue to keep its future in limbo.

“We don’t need a new home for the prime minister, we need a new home for working-class Canadians,” Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative leader who lives in a government-funded official residence, told reporters. He added that dealing with 24 Sussex would be the last item on his agenda if he becomes prime minister and that Mr. Trudeau was focused on “building mansions for himself.”


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for two decades.


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