24 Sussex Drive saga shows Canada is too complacent (and cheap) to have nice things
The Globe and Mail
Published April 6, 2023
Updated 1 hour ago
Built between 1866 and 1868, 24 Sussex Drive is the residence of the prime minister.
Jen Gerson is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
As a metaphor for Canada, it is almost too pat. But there is no more perfect monument to the state of our country than 24 Sussex Drive, the official and now-abandoned residence of the Prime Minister.
The home has an unparalleled location, offering a remarkable Ottawa view; it is stately, with an impressive pedigree. Yet its ostensibly sturdy stone façade is hiding a baffling and entirely avoidable state of disrepair so horrid that the residence is no longer fit for purpose.
Completed in 1868 by a lumber baron for his third wife, the residence was originally named Gorffwysfa, which is Welsh for “place of rest.” It is not a particularly special or beautiful house, and it only became an official residence in 1951, after a major renovation stripped the property of almost all of its historic charm in favour of an unfortunate modernism.
This could have been enough. Time and momentum in this new-ish nation could have had their way, allowing even an unlovely house to age into a proper symbol. This could have happened, if we just maintained the thing, and renovated the residence regularly.
Of course, we didn’t.
After several attempts to upgrade the house – including the infamous addition of a now-useless pool by Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s – spending cash on upkeeping 24 Sussex was soon declared political anathema. The home was designated a heritage site in the mid-1980s, just as a succession of governments decided that spending money on nice things was unbecoming to the national character.
As any neglectful homeowner can attest, things didn’t take long to deteriorate, and not merely cosmetically. The home is dangerous: It suffers from hazardous knob-and-tube wiring, electrical overloads, decrepit pipes, cracked windows, asbestos and mould. The auditor-general declared the need for renovations urgent – back in 2008. The estimated cost at the time would have been $10-million.
So of course, we stalled instead, completing only piecemeal repairs.
Now, the predictable thing has happened: 24 Sussex is closing, and the National Post reported that it was due, in part, to a rodent infestation. Feces and rat carcasses are apparently stacked so high in the attic and walls that the air quality has likely made the place uninhabitable.
And what does this petty little saga teach us? That Canada is complacent – and, what’s more, it’s cheap.
We’ve been so ideally situated on America’s rump, and thus so protected economically and militarily, that we’ve cultivated a comfortable leadership class that treats politics like low-stakes water polo. Partisan politics in Canada has become the purview of those ambitious enough to climb above their station, but too lacking in talent to go somewhere that matters.
The result is that all parties have to cultivate their leaders from a talent pool of individuals who are spineless and short-sighted, penny-wise and pound-foolish. These are people who – like the country they serve – are content to keep up a façade while ignoring what’s in the walls.
And so a problem that could have once cost a relatively small amount has festered into a massive issue no one will fix.
I’m not even picking on the Liberals here – although Justin Trudeau knew that the home was so terrible that he refused to let his children live in it after he became Prime Minister in 2015.
No, we cannot blame the state of decline on one party only; it’s the fault of a succession of leaders (though perhaps Stephen Harper in particular) who refused to see themselves as not just tenants of a home, but also stewards.
Only a tiny amount of foresight, courage and vision would have sufficed to jell the property into something more than the sum of its architecturally ungainly parts.
Again, the metaphors speak for themselves.
And so the site has been a yarn ball for pundits for years. Columnist Paul Wells mused about tearing the place down back in 2009 – he even invited architects to submit designs for its replacement to run in Maclean’s (another old mansion that is now not worth salvaging).
There is nothing wrong or frivolous about having an official residence – especially one that is occasionally drafted into holding official or diplomatic events. It’s not merely a perk of office: Such a home can become historically significant in its own right, expressing a country’s dignity and sense of self. It’s a building that tells the world exactly what we are.
24 Sussex is no exception.
We are an unserious country, luckily situated, that has glossed over our decline. Now, we won’t even have the courage to own up to the failure and accept the inevitable. So the building will continue to sit, unused, as it crumbles.
An unserious country can’t have nice things.
Burn it down.