Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberal government face a long list of issues that demand prioritization. Electoral reform, an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, climate change, and the refugee crisis are just a few. One of the first decisions made by the newly elected PM was seemingly unrelated to any of these, but is one that has garnered quite a bit of media attention: the Trudeau family will not be moving into 24 Sussex Drive. The decision stems from the need to restore the 1868 home that has suffered from decades-long neglect.
The restoration of a historic home may seem insignificant as Canada transitions to the post-Harper era. Indeed, the idea that the building should be restored has faced ridicule and been dismissed as a waste of money. Prominent architects and former residents of 24 Sussex have gone so far as to say the home should be demolished and replaced with something newer and bolder. For some observers, however, the announcement is being met with cautious optimism as a signal of a clear shift in this government’s attitudes towards the stewardship of Canada’s cultural and natural heritage. It has opened a dialogue regarding our understanding of the past and our vision for the future.
All buildings tell stories. The story of 24 Sussex is a story of Canada. Like Canada, 24 Sussex was built through the dispossession of Indigenous territories and the accumulation of wealth through resource extraction. Constructed between 1867-68, the original owner of this grand stone house, Joseph Merrill Currier, was involved in the Ottawa Valley lumber industry. As a member of the political and industrial elite, Currier was also involved in colonial and municipal politics, railways, newspapers, and banking. According to the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office (FHBRO), the heritage character of 24 Sussex Drive is determined in part by the evolutionary nature of the property. This evolution includes the property’s transformation from the home of a lumber baron to the formal residence of Canada’s prime ministers.
A Building in Decline
The need to renovate and restore 24 Sussex has been known by FHBRO, the National Capital Commission (responsible for managing all six official residences in Ottawa), and prime ministers for the last few decades. Unfortunately, conservation of the heritage building is a political hot potato. To undertake the work needed, the prime minister and their family would be required to vacate the home. Not wanting to be seen as spending government dollars on the prime minister’s “mansion,” federal leaders put off the need for a major overhaul, allowing the NCC and Public Works to undertake only patchwork repairs.
The building’s condition was highlighted in a 2006 Mercer Report special which saw Rick Mercer and then-Prime Minister Paul Martin headed to Canadian Tire in search of materials to winterize its windows; to Mercer’s amusement, he found an Inuit carving covering a stain on a carpet. A 2008 report by the Auditor General noted that the building is essentially on life support. Its HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems are in desperate need of upgrading and its many windows are cracked and failing, all the while being inaccessible for those with mobility issues–the estimated repair bill was set at $10 million. Trudeau’s decision to temporarily reside at Rideau Cottage has provided the opportunity to restore the building. It has also, however, resurrected the spectres of “wasted tax dollars” and “extravagance” that previous leaders so feared.
24 Sussex appears to be just another case of deferred maintenance. Looking closer at the issue, a more complicated story emerges. There are several factors at play with the past, present and future of 24 Sussex. To date, the debate has revolved around cost–should we spend $10 million or not?–and has underscored our continuing preoccupation with the willful erasure of the past–should it be demolished or not?
With all its flaws, structurally and historically, 24 Sussex should be viewed as an opportunity to tell a more inclusive story of Ottawa and Canada’s past, present, future. What story is being told when the discussion around 24 Sussex stagnates on points of money and demolition?
Moving Beyond Demolition
From a pragmatic perspective, the demolition of 24 Sussex is simply wasteful, both environmentally and economically. Popular opinion among those who favour demolition is that it is cheaper to demolish and start anew. This is not necessarily the case. The process for the disposal of a Classified federal heritage building is not as simple as tearing it down and sending the resulting waste to a landfill. Rather, in accordance with Treasury Board procedures, the building would generally be deconstructed and its component parts, its heritage attributes, stored for potential future use.
A growing number of studies have explored the inherent sustainability of retaining existing building stock as an alternative to the process of demolition and new construction. Studies from the Green Building Lab with the US National Trust for Preservation, provide more information. Construction waste accounts for a significant proportion of landfill materials and there are other environmental considerations, including the durability of historic materials and embodied energy. Rather than demanding demolition, consideration should be given to the four pillars of sustainability: environmental, social, economic, and cultural. In most cases, the greenest building is the one already standing, a sentiment echoed by the Sierra Club, the National Trust for Canada, Heritage Ottawa and others.
A ‘heritage-friendly’ approach to 24 Sussex should not be interpreted as a strict adherence to the current, or historic, building form. Heritage is not static and there are opportunities to re-imagine this government residence in modern and innovative ways.
Conservation does not preclude sustainable upgrades, such as solar panels, innovative technology or accessibility features. Rather, the conservation process can provide a ‘road map’ for guiding interventions in a way that strikes a balance between all values of the site–historic, architectural, and environmental. Just about every major city in Canada boasts striking restoration projects in which historic and contemporary elements are integrated into new structures. Far from being ‘mired’ in the past, the conservation process and the rehabilitation of 24 Sussex provide a unique opportunity to bring historic and contemporary values into the future.
The Locality of Canada’s Past
The landscape of national capitals is a curious one. Often, local history is supplanted in favour of sweeping national symbols in the form of buildings, monuments or parks. In the conflict between ‘town’ and ‘Crown’, Indigenous and local Settler histories can end up being overlooked. Situated within the Algonquins of Ontario settlement area, 24 Sussex is not a disembodied national symbol. It exists on unceded Indigenous territories and was brought into existence through the extraction of the local forest resource. 24 Sussex also has a local history. The demolition of 24 Sussex in favour of a new edifice would continue the trend of erasing Ottawa’s local history in favour of national symbolism – something there’s already plenty of in town.
It also has a history that is contested. Demolition of the current building in favour of a modern architectural vision suggests that Canada is ushering in a new era where the symbols of nation must be reinvented. While Canada and Ottawa may have changed since the lumber barons of the Ottawa Valley, the foundations of a national story–including resource extraction and ongoing colonization–remain encoded in today’s social, political and economic landscape. The suggestion here is not that this past be glorified or celebrated, but rather tangibly explained and highlighted through the existing home.
The Liberal government has committed to implementing all the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, it would be impossible to address our colonial present if we are unable to acknowledge our colonial past. Canada’s relationships with Indigenous peoples are established with the Crown but they exist in a local context. Given the government’s inaction on returning nearby Chaudiere Falls, It seems unlikely that the prime minister will go so far as to return 24 Sussex to the Algonquin peoples. Nevertheless, (re)inserting the story of colonization into local and national narratives of the built environment can be a critical measure that demands all Canadians engage with the questions of ongoing colonialism.
Making Heritage Accessible
Government has a role to play in the conservation of heritage resources. In addition to ‘what’ is to be done, there is a debate about ‘who’ should do it. While the idea of throwing open the doors of 24 Sussex to Mike Holmes could be enticing, it reflects a missed opportunity.
In the past, Canada has been a global leader in heritage conservation. Canadian conservation experts have made significant contributions to the development of the World Heritage system and best practices. They have also assisted other countries in establishing their conservation policies, and have provided assistance in safeguarding international cultural heritage. The federal government is fortunate to have several departments with highly qualified heritage conservation experts. The public service can play an integral role in planning and managing the restoration and renovation of 24 Sussex.
24 Sussex presents an opportunity to engage Canadians with the past and the world of conservation. If the Mike Holmes team, working alongside Federal heritage experts, can dispel the myth that what is old must be demolished, so much the better. But it will be the responsibility of the PM, the NCC, and many others to engage Canadians with the past, present, and future of 24 Sussex. The NCC’s Capital Urbanism Lab is one example of a tool that could be leveraged to initiate this dialogue.
Like science, history and heritage are ways for Canadians to make sense of the world. As with science, the systems that have been established to safeguard, conserve, and interpret heritage were under attack by the previous government, and faced cutbacks, program revisions, and muzzle orders, the impact of which we are only just now beginning to understand. A conservation project like 24 Sussex, led by the government’s own heritage professionals using a public, transparent process, would be a welcome shift away from the previous government’s approach.
Canada’s past is complicated and conflicted — it is not discrete or separate from contemporary society. Through built heritage, both the popular and the problematic of history are part of the fabric of our everyday lives.
It is environmentally responsible to restore and rehabilitate 24 Sussex. Furthermore, demolition in favour of a new structure would simply repeat a pattern of false separation between the past and present.
As we approach the 150th anniversary of Confederation, we should not be afraid to make decisions based on a progressive, inclusive vision for Canada. 24 Sussex presents an opportunity to reassert the locality of Canada’s past and recognizes the diversity of place which underpins a national identity.