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24 Sussex is now asbestos and rodent-free — and nobody knows what to do with it

The commission responsible for maintaining the prime minister's residence says 24 Sussex is now free of asbestos, mould, lead and rodents. But there has not yet been a decision on more substantial renovation and revitalization.

House requires almost $37 million in necessary repairs and renovations, capital commission says

A large house surrounded by trees.

The prime minister's official residence has been stripped of asbestos, mould, lead and rodents, according to the National Capital Commission.

But with the home still standing empty after eight years without a tenant, and with no clear plan for its future, there's no guarantee the mice won't move back.

"There's a reason that there are rats running through the place. If you left your place vacant … you'd have rats running through it too," said former heritage minister Sheila Copps in an interview with CBC Radio's The House.

The home at 24 Sussex Drive is in a sorry state, thanks to successive political leaders being unwilling to be seen spending money to refit the 19th century home. The work being done now is maintenance that "must be addressed regardless of any decision taken by the government on the future of the prime minister's residence," the NCC said in a media statement.

The House12:16No more mould or mice — but no decision on 24 Sussex either

Workers have finished removing asbestos, mould and dead rodents from 24 Sussex Drive, but it’s estimated it will cost millions to make the prime minister’s official residence habitable. Critics call the languishing home an “embarrassment” to a G7 nation. CBC’s Jennifer Chevalier explores how politics are still getting in the way of a decision on what should be done about Canada’s most famous heritage home.

Crews at 24 Sussex Drive have removed all the asbestos, lead and mould from the crumbling house.

Valérie Dufour, a spokesperson for the NCC, said crews have also stripped out the old electrical wiring and plumbing, and heat pumps are being installed to keep it from freezing while a decision is made about its future.

The rodents are also gone. And although previous reports said they were rats, they were mostly mice.

WATCH | The history of 24 Sussex

24 Sussex wasn’t always a rat-infested death trap

5 months ago

Duration 4:41

After decades of neglect and runaway repair costs, CBC News has learned that the federal agencies in charge of 24 Sussex are exploring new sites for the official home of Canada’s prime minister. Material from the CBC Archives shows some of its better days and its dramas.

The NCC estimates the residence needs almost $37 million in repairs and renovations.

The home was built in 1868 by Joseph Currier in the Gothic Revival style. In 1902, it was sold to fellow lumber baron W.C. Edwards and several new features were added, including a turreted three-story tower, gingerbread fascia and a porte cochère. Those "chateauesque" features were later removed when the home was expropriated in the 1940s and renovated for use as the prime minister's residence.

But it was the later renovations that created the first political firestorm.

"This goes back to Pierre Trudeau [and] the swimming pool of 40 or 50 years ago," said Michael Wernick, who was the clerk of the Privy Council from 2016 to 2019 and is now the Jarislowsky Chair in public sector management at the University of Ottawa.

In 1975, when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister, anonymous private donors paid for the construction of a pool and sauna at 24 Sussex — a renovation that tends to be brought up whenever anyone suggests spending money on the building.

"Anytime there's been any money spent on any of the official residences, you get the sort of performance theater from whoever is in opposition of the day, from media, from some of the … lobby groups," said Wernick. "There's no political upside for going ahead with either a renovation or a new building. There's only pain to be had."

Wernick said the current government considered renovations early on, but did not act.

"In 2016, we came very close to a cabinet decision on renovation of 24 Sussex," he said. "The matter was put to cabinet and cabinet decided not to proceed."

Andrew MacDougall, former director of communications to Stephen Harper, said there's a small window when a sitting prime minister can get away with renovating their home.

"Obviously, early in a mandate — when you're fresh off a win and people are feeling good — is the best time to do it," he said.

MacDougall said Trudeau squandered the chance to renovate the home when he took office and Harper never could because he was elected with a minority in 2006. In 2011, when the Conservatives won a majority, the world was coming off the global financial crisis.

"That's not the kind of time you want to go and spend money on things like renovating the house," MacDougall said.

Former minister says 24 Sussex deserves better

Sheila Copps, a former Liberal deputy prime minister, said she's approached former prime ministers, including Jean Chrétien, Harper and Brian Mulroney, to see if they might lend their support to a cross-partisan push to end the stalemate and restore 24 Sussex.

Copps, who now lobbies on behalf of the heritage group Historic Ottawa Development Inc., said she approached the late former NDP leader Ed Broadbent.

"He stepped up immediately and said yes, this should be done. This is an important element of Canadian history and shouldn't be torn down or repurposed for something else like, you know, sending out last week's garbage or something," Copps said.

In a statement sent to CBC's The House, the office of Public Services and Procurement Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said "any decision for the future of 24 Sussex Drive will not be taken lightly." The statement said the government is still in discussions with stakeholders.

WATCH | Possible changes to official residence proposed:

Heritage advocates propose fixes for 24 Sussex

5 months ago

Duration 2:07

A group of heritage proponents with construction backgrounds are proposing plans to restore the dilapidated 24 Sussex Dr. as a place fit for Canada’s prime minister.

"Noting that there has not been any significant investment in over 60 years, this ambitious work is ongoing and will balance security needs with universal accessibility, historic preservation, and aspects of environmental sustainability," the minister's statement said.

The statement did not say when a decision would be made.

Heritage groups fear further deterioration if it doesn't happen soon. Others are convinced the politics is making a decision impossible.

"You don't get credit for not spending the money, but you do get blame if the residence falls apart under your watch," MacDougall said. "It just takes a leader with a bit of confidence to [say] we are a G7 country, we are an important country on the world stage. We don't keep things together with Bondo and hockey tape.

"At some point, it just becomes embarrassing."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Chevalier

Senior Producer, The House

Jennifer Chevalier is the senior producer of CBC Radio's The House. You can contact her at jennifer.chevalier@cbc.ca

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