Wanderings – Addressing Canada’s other, other housing issue

Canada has a housing issue. No, not a supply or affordability issue. Nor is it the lack of people in the construction trades. Our latest, but not latest, housing problem is 24 Sussex Drive, also know as the Prime Minister’s residence. Since 2015, the house has sat empty awaiting asbestos and mould abatement and a significant retrofit. The current occupant of the Prime Minister’s office has lived in a cottage on the grounds of Rideau Hall for eight years. And in that time, the question of what to do with 24 Sussex remains embarrassingly unanswered.

The residence was built in the 1860s and has been the official home of the Prime Minister since 1950. It is a heritage building, but also ugly looking thanks to poorly thought out modernizing and renovations done on the cheap by the Canadian Government.

No politician wants to be seen spending money on the home they live in. Eight years empty, this political hot potato has gone untouched. Admittedly the optics of sinking millions of dollars into restoring or replacing the home of the Prime Minister, when many Canadians are dealing with housing and affordability issues of their own, looks bad. But the optics of having a Prime Minister live away from their official residence due to rat-infestations and asbestos is worse. What country, other than Canada, would have their leader live in a glorified guest house while their offical home falls apart?

For over 200 years, except for that brief period after August 1814 when the British Army left a mess, the United States’ White House has been a home and symbol of their head of state. Regardless of who occupied the White House, Americans would not stand for this symbol to be left in a seriously poor state. The same in Great Britian with 10 Downing Street. For over 270 years, it has been maintained and modernized, regardless of which Prime Minister lives in the building.

Thanks for reading Wanderings – Selected writing by Phillip Blancher! Did you know the White House was named so because the British torched it in August 1814? Amazing that the US exists because of a rebellion against the British Crown, and their presidential house was named because the British tried to burn it down. Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.

Netherlands’s Prime Ministers live in their own home, but have an official residence for greeting dignitaries and for hosting official functions. The Dutch are not the only ones whose head of government lives separately from an official residence. Germany, Norway, Estonia, and Ireland all have official residences for ceremonial duties while the government leader lives in their own place.

Some leaders have palaces, like in France and Spain. I am not saying that Canada needs a palace, but if a majority of first world countries, and even many in the third world, have official residences for there leader(s), why can’t we aspire for the same?

I personally don’t have a preference: tear down 24 Sussex, or restore it. After eight years of analysis paralysis, I just want to see a decision made and stuck with.

If Canada’s civil servants decide to tear down, rather than restore, the Prime Minister’s residence, I have a few thoughts on the replacement building:

Canada has a vast talent pool of internationally-renowned architects from Frank Gehry and Moshe Safdie to Douglas Cardinal and Alison Brooks. The official residence exists not just to house the sitting Prime Minister but also to be a place to greet other world leaders – why not have Canada’s official residence be an architectural gem?

Better still, there are at least 12 universities in Canada which are part of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. The future architects of our country could compete to design a new official residence.

Lastly, Canada exports a lot of home renovation and home building talent for international TV markets. HGTV Canada has launched the careers of Mike Holmes, Bryan Baeumler, and Scott McGillivray, just to name a few. In the spirit of patriotic duty, these contractors and home builders could certainly knock together a new official residence for our Prime Minister. Add a film crew or two and the show “Build my PM’s Home” could pay for itself with product placements and the broadcast rights for the series – little-to-no tax money required. And if the new home needs a kickin’ back yard, there’s an HGTV host with local ties who could help out too.

Our country should not have a Prime Minister without an official residence, regardless of the political colour the person who holds the office affiliates with. Having a Prime Minister living in a guest house while their official residence crumbles into nothing says a lot about the image we want to project in the world. We’re long overdue on a decision of what to do with 24 Sussex.

This column was originally published in the September 6, 2023 print edition of The Morrisburg Leader. Facebook/Meta won’t let you share the newspaper in Canada, but you can share this column.