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

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.

Justin Trudeau — shown here outside Rideau Hall, the official residence of Canada's governor general, after being sworn in as Canada's prime minister on Nov. 4 — has opted to live in a house on the Rideau Hall grounds.
Geoff Robins / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Justin Trudeau — shown here outside Rideau Hall, the official residence of Canada's governor general, after being sworn in as Canada's prime minister on Nov. 4 — has opted to live in a house on the Rideau Hall grounds.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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