Canada's Official Residence, No Longer Fit For A Prime Minister | KERA News

Canada's Official Residence, No Longer Fit For A Prime Minister

Mar 9, 2016
Originally published on March 9, 2016 11:13 am

As Canada's new leader, Justin Trudeau should by rights be moving into the official prime minister's residence in Ottawa. It was a place where he spent much of his childhood, when his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, led the nation. But after years of neglect, the 34-room riverfront mansion is in such bad repair that Trudeau and his family have to live elsewhere.

Complaints about the residence at 24 Sussex Drive are legendary. Margaret Trudeau, the new prime minister's mother, famously called the residence "the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system." The wife of a former Canadian prime minister placed buckets in the living room to catch rain leaking through the roof. Another complained it was freezing in the winter.

From a distance, the 138-year-old limestone structure looks distinguished and befitting a Canadian leader. But it shows its age when you get up close.

Diane Beckett, the interim director of the Sierra Club of Canada, visited 24 Sussex Drive a few years ago and describes it as "quite worn down and quite faded." The kitchen was minuscule, she says, and the place was drafty.

"They put in this 1960s cheap patio door that you would have in your cottage. And so when I was there, they had actually covered it in plastic to keep the cold out," Beckett says.

In 2008, Canada's auditor general released a report saying decades of neglect had left just about everything in the residence in critical need of repairs: floors, ceilings, electrics, plumbing, heating, air conditioning, not to mention the asbestos that needs to be removed. The cost of those repairs was estimated at $10 million Canadian, or about $7.5 million U.S., and those estimates will likely double at the very least.

Historian and author Charlotte Gray says the residence has had no major repairs in more than 50 years because prime ministers don't want to spend the political capital.

"It's always absolutely red meat for the opposition," she says. "This is the perfect opportunity to say your government is spending your dollars on luxury for their leader."

Gray says some former leaders learned this the hard way. "When Pierre Trudeau, the present prime minister's father, put in a swimming pool, that was seen as enormously self-indulgent," she says. "And then when Prime Minister [Brian] Mulroney, he tried to upgrade it because he had a much swankier lifestyle — again, it was seen as he was putting on airs."

Many other leaders simply chose to ignore the problems, Gray says.

Now that Trudeau has decided to move his family to another home, there is debate about what to do with the official residence. Many Canadians believe it's a heritage building that needs to be restored, and the hosts of two popular home renovation TV shows have offered their services.

Environmentalists like the Sierra Club's Beckett say the residence needs to be made energy efficient, in keeping with Trudeau's commitment to fighting climate change.

Greg Furlong, an energy specialist with Canada's EnviroCentre, says either way, great care needs to be taken with any sort of renovation on an old stone building.

"A lot of these older structures stay standing just because they were built in a certain era with certain conditions in mind," Furlong says. "And sometimes if you change the conditions, then the structure will start to deteriorate."

Maureen McTeer, the wife of former Prime Minister Joe Clark, says it's time to tear the place down. She told the CBC's Ontario Today program that it's not worth spending millions of dollars just to make 24 Sussex livable when there could be a new, modern prime minister's residence.

"I would very much like to see a house built which is worthy of all that is best in Canada, our best people putting it together, our best architects," she said.

A decision on the fate of the prime minister's residence isn't expected anytime soon.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And of course whoever wins this election will move into the White House. It is not so straightforward in Canada. That country's new leader, Justin Trudeau, should be moving into the prime minister's residence in Ottawa. He spent much of his childhood there when his father led the country. But the riverfront mansion is in such bad shape Trudeau can't move in. There's even talk of tearing the place down. Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The wife of one Canadian prime minister placed buckets in the living room of the residence to catch rain leaking through the roof. Another complained electric heaters used in the winter blew fuses. Margaret Trudeau, the new prime minister's mother, famously called the residence the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system.

One of the striking things about the prime minister's residence here at 24 Sussex Drive is how close it is to the road. I'm standing on the sidewalk and looking at the house through the trees. And it's less than 100 feet away. From this distance, the 138-year-old limestone mansion looks distinguished and befitting a Canadian leader. But it shows its age when you get up close.

DIANE BECKETT: It was quite worn down and quite faded.

NORTHAM: Diane Beckett, the interim director of the Sierra Club of Canada, visited the prime minister's residence a few years ago. She says the kitchen was miniscule and the place was drafty.

BECKETT: They put in this 1960s cheap patio door that you would have in your cottage. And so when I was there, they had actually covered it in plastic.

NORTHAM: Why?

BECKETT: To keep the cold out.

NORTHAM: In 2008, the auditor general released a report saying decades of neglect have left the residence in critical need of repairs. You name it - floors, ceilings, electrics, plumbing, heating, air-conditioning, and, oh yeah, the asbestos needs to be removed. Historian and author Charlotte Gray says the residence has had no major repairs in more than 50 years because prime ministers don't want to spend the political capital.

CHARLOTTE GRAY: It's always absolutely sort of red meat for the opposition. This is the perfect opportunity to say your government is spending your dollars on luxury for their leader.

NORTHAM: Gray says some former leaders learned the hard way.

GRAY: When, for example, Pierre Trudeau, the present prime minister's father, put in a swimming pool, that was seen as enormously self-indulgent. And then when Prime Minister Mulroney, he tried to upgrade it again, it was seen as he was putting on airs.

NORTHAM: Gray says many other leaders just chose to ignore the problems. The new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, decided to move his family to another home until something can be done about the official residence. But what to do? Many Canadians believe it's a heritage building that needs to be restored. The hosts of two popular home renovation shows have offered their services. Environmentalists say it needs to be energy-efficient as an example of Trudeau's commitment to fighting climate change. Greg Furlong, an energy specialist with EnviroCentre, says either way, great care needs to be taken with any sort of renovation of an old stone building.

GREG FURLONG: A lot of these older structures stay standing just because they were built in a certain era with certain conditions in mind. And sometimes if you change the conditions then the structure will start to deteriorate.

NORTHAM: Maureen McTeer, the wife of former Prime Minister Joe Clark, says tear the place down. She told the "Ontario Today" program it's not worth spending millions of dollars just to make it livable when there could be a new, modern prime minister's residence.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ONTARIO TODAY")

MAUREEN MCTEER: I would very much like to see a house built which is worthy of all that is best in Canada - our best people putting it together, our best architects.

NORTHAM: A decision on the fate of the prime minister's residence isn't expected anytime soon. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Ottawa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.