Canada’s official residences deserve our care and respect

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, May 17, 2020.

This week, a furor arose on a topic that feels remote to most Canadians, even more so amid the upheaval of COVID-19: the prime minister’s cottage.

In the context of unprecedented layoffs, a health-care crisis and a looming recession, there are many who find such a conversation tone-deaf. But they miss the point — Harrington Lake and the other official residences do not belong to any politician, rather they are symbols (or should be) that belong to all Canadians.

Though most of us would be hard-pressed to name them, the National Capital Commission maintains six historic official properties. In addition to the iconic Rideau Hall and the famously decrepit 24 Sussex Drive, there is the Opposition leader’s home, Stornoway, the House of Commons Speaker’s Gatineau getaway, “The Farm,” a place for visiting dignitaries to crash, 7 Rideau Gate, and — subject of the latest furor — Harrington Lake.

As sure as the swallows are to return to Capistrano each year, on cue, opposition parties shame the sitting prime minister for spending even a red cent on upkeep of these official residences. And it matters not who is paying the bill. Trudeau Sr. was attacked for allowing supporters to build a swimming pool at 24 Sussex — critics called it a bribe from shadowy donors. When Brian Mulroney dared to spend $308,000 on renovations — much of it funded by the PC Party of Canada — he was accused of “Imelda Marcos-like” extravagance.

Now it is Justin Trudeau’s turn. Since mid-April, Conservatives have been using Google Earth photos to speculate that the prime minister has been secretly building himself a “lakeside mansion” at Harrington Lake. Not so, says the National Capital Commission: they are proceeding with a planned $6.1 million restoration of the main cottage. The prime minster is simply using a newly or — depending on who you ask — ostentatiously rebuilt “farmhouse” in the interim; one that will revert to use by official guests once renovations are done.

As the Liberals have faltered in disclosing information about this latest renovation and the NCC has been forced to play cleanup, the country’s chattering classes or “notables” as they like to call themselves in Ottawa, plunge once again into a familiar pond of rancour; fear of which has dissuaded government after government from keeping these residences in livable condition. And talk about pound-foolish and penny wise. With each delay, the eventual cost increases as the buildings sink further into disrepair.

As a result, the historic properties intended to house our country’s elected leadership are in a sorry state. At 24 Sussex, the wiring is a fire hazard, the boiler is broken, the plumbing jams often, the brickwork is crumbling; the entire place is cooled during the summer months by security-compromising window-mounted air conditioner units. The dining room is too big for a family, but too small for a state function. Asbestos is everywhere, as are rodents. And not the hamsters favoured by the Harper children.

That Canada has allowed these properties to degrade into squalor is a national shame. Across the world, there is a distinguished tradition of official residences for heads of government. Just as 10 Downing Street does for the British or the White House does for the Americans, 24 Sussex should serve as a metonym for our elected government itself.

Yet the disrepair is so bad, the current PM has chosen to abandon it and decamp across the road to Rideau Cottage, which his daily coronavirus updates have made famous.

It’s clear no leader has the political guts to make the obvious case that any renovation would not be in his (or her) personal interest; indeed, the necessary fixes would take longer than any prime minister’s term to complete.

So, it is also clear we need a different approach. We need to take this whole business out of the hands of the politicians and entrust these properties to an independent commission of experts.

Just as we have relied on health care professionals to help guide us through this pandemic, we should rely on architectural experts to help determine the future of these important buildings.

After all, these residences, emblems as they are of our system of government, deserve better. They deserve our care and our respect.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt