The Prime Minister’s residence may not be as famous as its American counterpart (that would be the White House, for those wondering) but it’s certainly a part of Canadian history. Over the past few decades, 24 Sussex Drive has deteriorated from disrepair to downright decay to the point where in 2015, when Justin Trudeau took office, he wasn’t able to move into the historic building, but instead had to take up residence across the street at Rideau Cottage on the Governor General’s grounds. A new report estimates that repairs to make Sussex livable for the PM would cost about $34.5 million. Yikes.
There isn’t much consensus among Canadians over what should be done about 24 Sussex (Should we just suck it up and pay the bill? Should it be demolished and rebuilt? Should we just put the incumbent PM up in an AirBnB for 5 years?) but Canada’s official contractor — Mike Holmes — has a novel idea: spruce it up and give it back to the people by making it a museum.
“When it comes to this home, another question should be: Should it be a museum?” Holmes posited on CTV’s Question Period Sunday. “Should we turn it back to history for all the prime ministers that were there, for the public to walk in and see it? Or should it be for the prime minister, and the next prime minister, and continue this cycle? That is a big question. I’m not sure what to do about that.”
— CTV Calgary (@CTVCalgary) November 25, 2018
He acknowledged that no PM wants to foot the bill (or take on the optics of having taxpayers pay for the residence).
“It shouldn’t be about the prime minister, it should be about Canada,” he said. “We should be doing this for our country, for the history and for the future prime minister — and even the existing prime minister right now. If we thought that way, at least we’re moving in the right direction … Should we do something about it? The answer is absolutely ‘yes.’ Should we be honest about it? The answer is ‘yes.'”
Holmes offered to head the rebuilding project in 2015, but was turned down by the PMO. In an interview following that, he said he wasn’t too sure he actually wanted to do the project, admitting that it would thrust him into politics whether he wanted it to or not.
“Do I really want to put myself in that position?” he said. “[Ottawa] is a world that I really don’t want to play in, but if there’s anyone good in the country that can do this, that’s me.”
He added, for Canadians who are skeptical about the price tag, that a comparable house would only cost $5 to $8 million to build but preserving the history and integrity of the building during the restoration is what would cost so much.
“One, there’s heritage. You have to respect the heritage. That stone that’s around the building – that’s limestone. Is that to be replaced? Is it to look the same? Are the windows to look the same?” he said. “This is going to take so much of real professionals out there, and I’m talking old-school professionals, not young, just to bring it back to the way it used to be.”
The home was built in 1867 and was renovated and expanded in 1909 with smaller renovations made in the 1950s (when it became the PM’s official residence). No one has lived in the building since Stephen Harper vacated it in 2015 and Justin Trudeau opted out of moving in. The limestone making up the outer walls is crumbling, the foundation is wearing away in some places and the improvements made in the ’50s simply covered up problems rather than fixing them. Plus there are the fundamental problems of asbestos throughout the building and an electrical system that has been deemed a fire hazard. Not good.
For decades, PMs have ignored calls by experts to have the place completely renovated in the right way for fear of being accused of misusing tax dollars. That thinking might be a little shortsighted, however. A report in the Ottawa Citizen earlier this year revealed that even unoccupied, the mansion costs about $171,000 to maintain throughout the winter. Between heating costs, smaller repairs and cleaning before and after the few functions that are still held there, the house is still costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars (on top of the living costs they already pay to put up the prime minister).
So whether they renovate 24 Sussex for Trudeau, for his successor or for the Canadian people to view as a museum, it looks like it’s going to take several large stacks of taxpayer Bordens to get the job done.