The renovation debate at 24 Sussex

Repairs to the Prime Minister’s official residence come down to politics, not faulty plumbing

Blair Gable / Reuters; Louis McPherson and Studio Hetmes / The Noun Project

When Stephen and Laureen Harper’s daughter, Rachel, was in primary school, she’d lock her bicycle to the front railing of 24 Sussex, oblivious that her house was enclosed by a security fence and about the safest place in Canada to park your bike. The official residence of the Prime Minister in Ottawa is by no means a normal childhood home, with bodyguards and staff milling about. But it is a wonderful perk of the job, with lots of space to romp around in the 34-room, 12,000-sq.-foot home with an indoor pool and sauna (famously installed by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau). The 145-year-old, three-storey limestone house sits on a two-hectare property in the desirable New Edinburgh neighbourhood and backs onto the Ottawa River.

It’s also an old home in urgent need of repair. Last year, a building on the property was saved from falling into the river after an engineer’s report showed the cliff was sliding away. This summer there’s ongoing maintenance work and some rooms are being repainted. But there are far bigger problems. The home is in need of extensive renovation, a situation that hasn’t changed since 2008 when a report by former auditor general Sheila Fraser suggested the Harpers move out for more than a year so the home could be overhauled.

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The Harpers have never complained publicly about the state of 24 Sussex and are happy living there, say sources close to them, who also note the family has fairly modest needs—their Calgary residence is a typical suburban home. Every summer, the Harpers move to the PM’s official summer residence at Harrington Lake in Gatineau Park, Que., and the National Capital Commission carries out structural work, safety updates and landscaping.

But there were new calls last week for the Harper family to leave 24 Sussex for a much longer stretch, after the Ottawa Citizen reported the NCC was “unable to perform substantial renovations” and, according to Access to Information documents, taxpayers spent more than $69,000 last year on heat and hydro for the aging property. That was a 20 per cent increase since the Harpers first moved in, largely due to rising energy rates. The Citizen ran an editorial calling on the Harpers to “Vacate the premises at 24 Sussex,” while a National Post headline declared: “It’s time to oust the Harpers from Sussex Drive.”

In her 2008 report, Fraser said that repairs at the official residence could take up to 15 months to complete, at an estimated cost of at least $10 million. She warned that delaying work would cause further deterioration, increase future costs, and risk embarrassing Canada when foreign dignitaries come to town. The NCC has tried to relocate the Harpers and proposed Rideau Gate, the house across from 24 Sussex, where the royal family stays. Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff also offered up Stornoway, the Opposition leader’s house. But the Harpers have made it clear they won’t move out long-term. Any major renovation is bound to go over budget, and there are political implications to spending so much to upgrade the house.

The Harpers declined to comment for this story, but those close to the family point out that moving long-term to Harrington Lake, a 30-minute drive north of the city, is impractical with teenagers, when they’re at school and involved in numerous activities.

Over seven years in office, the Harper family has vacated a total of 14 months during the summers, allowing various repairs to be done. “The NCC does maintenance every summer,” said Andrew MacDougall, the PM’s director of communications. He added that “the Prime Minister and his family find the home adequate to their needs,” repeating the same comment the PMO has used since the AG’s report first came out.

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