Most leaders of Western countries are secure in the official residences that come with their jobs. They may be evicted by term limits, elections or scandals, but they don’t have to worry about other housing uncertainties.
Not in Canada, though.
Since he became prime minister in 2015, Justin Trudeau and his family have lived in a cottage on the grounds of Rideau Hall, the official residence of the Governor General, because of concerns about the declining state of 24 Sussex Drive, the traditional prime minister’s residence.
Mr. Trudeau has previously said 24 Sussex Drive, built in 1887 and 1888 as a lumber baron’s home, has been neglected by many generations of politicians and prime ministers and is “in terrible condition.” The National Capital Commission, which manages official residences in the Ottawa area, has chronicled the decline of the property from neglect, and has said it would cost about $36.6-million to properly renovate the building.
In a 2021 report, the NCC said the areas designated as state or official spaces in the residence are not appropriate, in either layout or condition, to serve official functions.
Asked about Mr. Trudeau’s stay in Rideau Cottage, NCC spokesperson Valérie Dufour said in a statement that he is living there “on a temporary basis.” Temporary suggests imminent change, but it’s not clear the official residence of the country’s most prominent politician can expect anything of the sort.
Ms. Dufour said the federal government is assessing options for the future of 24 Sussex Drive, and that “further information will be available in due course.”
Olivier Pilon, press secretary for Public Services and Procurement Minister Helena Jaczek, said in a statement that the government is continuing to develop a plan for the future of 24 Sussex Drive. But he said he could not elaborate.
There have been cases made for revamping 24 Sussex Drive. One proposal, by the Ottawa architecture firm MTBA Associates, called for an overhaul of the house and the addition of a secondary building that would provide offices, meeting space and dining space for the official needs of the prime minister.
But some observers, including two former heads of the federal civil service, are making the case for a newly built residence for Canada’s prime minister that would be a dramatic break from the status quo.
This new residence would combine room for the prime minister and their family with office functions. There would be space for meetings on-site, and for hosting visiting leaders and their staff members.
Proponents of the plan say such a home would be appropriate for the leader of a Group of Seven country with almost 40 million residents, whose schedule is packed with meetings and other pressing responsibilities.
Mel Cappe, who led the civil service as privy council clerk from 1999 to 2002, said living in Rideau Cottage means Mr. Trudeau can’t even host the premiers of the provinces and territories, because the home isn’t suited for that.
“It is pathetic that we, as a G7 country, can’t afford to build a reasonable residence for the prime minister of Canada. It is unbelievable to me,” said Mr. Cappe, who is now a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.
“We should have the capacity for the prime minister to host his cabinet for a meeting, like Number 10 [Downing Street], like in the White House, where these official properties are used for official business,” he added.
Michael Wernick, who was privy council clerk from 2016 to 2019 and now holds the Jarislowsky chair in public sector management at the University of Ottawa, said Rideau Cottage has its merits. He noted that the property is secure, because it is on the easily patrolled grounds of Rideau Hall, and not as exposed as 24 Sussex Drive.
“And it is reasonably comfortable for a family space,” he said. “It fails the test on entertaining and office space and being able to meet with staff there and so on.”
The 8,500-square-foot home in Ottawa’s New Edinburgh neighbourhood was built in 1862 and obtained by the Crown in 1966 as a residence for visiting dignitaries. It was renovated in 1989.
Mr. Wernick said any new prime ministerial residence would have to tick off a number of boxes. ”You have to have a certain setback, physical distancing from roads, which is going to lead to a very difficult NIMBY issue in Ottawa about finding a certain site,” he said.
It needs security features, such as a structural-steel frame, blast-proof windows and a safe room, he added.
The interior of the structure, he said, should include a modest office for the prime minister, and a secure meeting room. “Having a conference-room-type setup where you can have 10 to 15 people securely, so the Chinese or the Americans aren’t listening, is probably a good idea.”
And it should allow the prime minister to host small gatherings. ”You need a kind of modest entertaining facility that any embassy in Rockcliffe or Sandy Hill would have,” Mr. Wernick said, referring to a pair of downtown Ottawa neighbourhoods.
A study by HOK Architects prepared for the NCC and released earlier this year made the case for a residence that would combine a private home with space for a long list of functions, including operational space for support staff and security staff.
The report says 24 Sussex Drive lacks space for ceremonial or official events, dealing with the media and other typical functions of a prime minister.
“While previous prime ministers and their staff have ‘made do’ with the space provided within the current facility, the building has naturally limited the functions that could be performed, and now falls far short when compared to other G7 and Commonwealth nations,” the report says.
HOK declined to comment on its recommendations.
Pollster Nik Nanos, chief data scientist at Nanos Research, said the issue has bedevilled many leaders. Policy decisions about improving the Prime Minister’s living space are always challenging. And that is especially true now, during the current fierce debate over affordability.
“This topic has been a proverbial irritant for successive prime ministers, with each PM inheriting the legacy of inaction from their predecessor. The reality is that regardless of the path forward, whether to bring 24 Sussex up to code or build something new – the political fallout will likely be the same,” Mr. Nanos said.
A 2016 Nanos poll found that 54 per cent of respondents believed the federal government should replace 24 Sussex Drive if doing so would cost less than $38-million.
Julie Vignola, the Bloc Québécois procurement critic, criticized the current government and past Liberal and Conservative governments for not having invested in 24 Sussex Drive in a sustainable way. “We are now left with a decrepit building that will cost taxpayers tens of millions,” she said in a statement.
Asked about the issue, the NDP cited a 2018 statement by party Leader Jagmeet Singh. “When people are struggling to make ends meet, it’s hard to justify spending millions to renovate an official residence. But a decision just needs to be made: the neglected renovations, delays and indecisiveness about what to do with the building is what has caused the run up in expenses,” he said.
The office of Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre did not respond to a request for comment on the issue.
Both Mr. Cappe and Mr. Wernick were skeptical that any progress would be made on the issue because of the inevitable political attacks that would be aimed at an administration that tried to improve housing for the prime minister.
Still, they noted that, given construction timelines, it’s likely that the prime minister who commissioned a new building would not be around long enough to live there.
“This is the kind of thing that prime ministers kick down the road. Nobody wants to bite the bullet on this and wear it,” Mr. Cappe said.
There may be lessons for Canada in the story of the Lodge, the main residence of the Australian prime minister. The house in Australia’s political capital, Canberra, was purpose-built for the country’s prime minister, and received its first resident in 1927.
The Lodge was renovated between 2013 and 2015 at a cost of $11.5-million, and the expense created controversy. Consultations between the prime minister and the opposition leader led to the creation of an official-residences advisory committee to provide the government with guidance on these issues.
Mr. Cappe said there are solutions to the political challenges in Canada.
He said the next prime minister should, as their last act before leaving office, go to Parliament and seek approval for money to spend on a residence for their successor. “That solves the problem of his looking like he’s doing it for his self-aggrandizement,” Mr. Cappe said.
Or, he said, one the leaders of the smaller parties could advance the issue, draining the politics from it by saying the residence is for a future prime minister.
Mr. Wernick said the issue could be taken away from the NCC and handed to something akin to Britain’s National Trust, with an endowment or capital fund.
”We will have prime ministers for the next hundred years. This is about them,” he said.
Prime Ministerial, Presidential residences in other countries
The White House (United States) – The official residence and working space of the president of the United States since 1800. The 55,000-square-foot complex in Washington includes space for staff, cabinet meetings, members of the media and state dinners.
10 Downing Street (United Kingdom) – The official residence and office of the British prime minister, going back to 1735. Number 10 consists of about 100 rooms. In addition to residential space, it has space for cabinet meetings and hosting guests, including heads of state. In 2006, the complex was renovated to solve issues with the structure, access and environmental sustainability. Neighbouring 11 Downing Street provides a residence for the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Élysée Palace (France) – The 120,300-square-foot complex, completed in 1722 and located in Paris, is the official residence of the president of the French Republic. It includes offices, as well as meeting space for the French cabinet. State visitors to France are housed in a nearby residence called the Hôtel de Marigny.
The Lodge (Australia) – The principal residence of Australia’s prime minister, located in Canberra. The 40-room suburban structure near the country’s Parliament building was built in 1926 and 1927. It was renovated between 2013 and 2015. There’s a secondary residence, Kirribilli House, in a suburb of Sydney. And there’s a suite for the prime minister in the Parliament building in Canberra.
Premier House (New Zealand) – A private residence purchased for the use of New Zealand’s prime minister in 1865, and expanded since then. For more than 50 years, the 3,700-square-foot building was a dental clinic, until it was renovated and resumed its role as the official residence in 1990. It is administered by New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs. Premier House had a $2.5-million renovation in 2017.
The Kantei (Japan) – The principal office and residence of Japan’s prime minister, located in Tokyo. When it entered service in 2002, it replaced a residence that had opened in 1929. The new complex covers 269,000 square feet and includes an office for the prime minister, as well as space for cabinet meetings and news conferences. There’s also space for a national crisis management centre.
The Bundeskanzleramt (Germany) – The title refers to the building, in Berlin, where the personal offices of Germany’s chancellor are located. There is a small official apartment for the chancellor in the building, but former chancellor Angela Merkel lived in a private apartment in Berlin. Olaf Scholz, the current chancellor, has a private home in Potsdam.
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