Jerry Amernic: The rats of 24 Sussex

The prime minister's residence is an abandoned, rat-infested hellhole in dire need of repair
The Canadian prime ministers' residence, 24 Sussex, is seen on the banks of the Ottawa River in Ottawa on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

The official residence of the president of France is the Élysée Palace in Paris. More than 200 years old, it contains the office and home of the nation’s leader and is where the Council of Ministers meets weekly. The Élysée Palace is a prestige location embedded in the country’s fabric and culture.

The official residence of the prime minister of the United Kingdom is 10 Downing Street in London. This place is over 300 years old and despite the narrow entrance has 100 rooms. It’s where government ministers and foreign dignitaries are hosted. Former PM Margaret Thatcher called it “one of the most precious jewels in the national heritage.”

Australia, a key member of the British Commonwealth, maintains the official residence of its leader at The Lodge in Canberra. Completed in 1927, it is a 40-room mansion built in the Georgian revival style and has been renovated several times because, well, this is where the prime minister lives.

Closer to home, the official residence of the President of the United States is the White House in Washington, D.C. Every president since John Adams way back in 1800 has lived there. A neoclassical edifice, it was set ablaze along with much of the capital by British troops in the War of 1812. Reconstruction began right away because, hey, the president lives there. The White House is a National Historic Site and some years back ranked no. 2 on a list of America’s Favorite Architecture.

Which brings me to 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa. Canadians may recognize the address as the residence of our prime minister, and until a few years ago it was. But the current occupant has been living at Rideau Cottage since taking office in 2015. Why? 24 Sussex is an abandoned, rat-infested hellhole in dire need of repair, but in true Canadian fashion no one can agree on what to do. It was completed in 1868 and after being in private hands was expropriated by the feds in 1943 only to become the official home of the prime minister in 1951.

Today, the empty, discarded mansion would be an ideal place to shoot Hollywood’s latest slasher film or a new episode of A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s a fire hazard that, according to a recent newspaper report, is full of asbestos, radon gas, mould, not to mention deficient plumbing, cracked windows, and a leaky roof. But 24 Sussex is managed by the National Capital Commission which begs the question: what exactly is being managed here?

Nevertheless, its current status is more akin to that of a missing pair of socks hidden at the bottom of a basement closet, which is typical of how Canada treats heritage and history. Alas, this is one more reason—there are others but we won’t get into them here—why we aren’t a real country. Not like France, the United Kingdom, Australia, or the United States.

I mentioned the War of 1812. A year after the White House was burned the Yanks returned the favour by burning the governor’s residence and the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada. That legislative building—the first parliament in what would become the Dominion of Canada—was situated at the corner of Front Street and Parliament Street in the Town of York. Now Toronto. One would think this is a rather important site.

The Americans rebuilt their White House to the grandeur with which it is recognized around the world today, and in record time. After all, the president lives there. As for the Upper Canadians, they rebuilt their original parliament building but it perished in another fire and new buildings went up yet again and they would be used for everything from law courts and barracks to an insane asylum. Yes, I get the irony, but let’s continue.

On November 1, 2000, Americans celebrated the 200th anniversary of their White House with great fanfare. The very same day archaeologist Ron Williamson was excavating the site of Canada’s first parliament. He excavated the building’s foundation and found artifacts and the charred remains of the floorboards from that fire set by the Americans in 1813. What was standing on the site of the former Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada? The bastion of our nation’s democracy.

A car wash.

I wrote about this in The National Post and there is a quote attributed to the archaeologist: “This is a site of national, if not international, significance. It bothers me how our society views historical resources. This is the cradle of Upper Canada’s democracy, so what was it doing in a car wash?”

I don’t know what’s there now. Maybe a parking lot. But let’s return to 24 Sussex, the one-time home of ten prime ministers. The last of them was Stephen Harper and I assume young people know his name. After all, it wasn’t that long ago. The first PM to live there was Louis St. Laurent, but with him we’re talking early 1950s—the Jurassic era to today’s age of enlightenment—and he may be a stretch.

Now it’s very likely that Margaret Trudeau, one-time wife of PM Trudeau I and mother of PM Trudeau II, was familiar with that comment from the other Margaret—Thatcher, long-time prime minister of the U.K.—about 10 Downing Street being a “jewel.” I say this because she applied that same word to 24 Sussex in a documentary called The Residences: Inside 24 Sussex—Home of Canada’s Prime Minister, only she called it “the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system.”

According to a 2008 report from then auditor-general Sheila Fraser, renovations to bring 24 Sussex up to snuff would cost $10 million. That was then. The occupant at the time, Mr. Harper, thought that was too steep. Perhaps the most telling thing ever said or written about the place was in 1985 when it received official designation as a heritage site. The Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office said in a summary: “The house itself is undistinguished, but its size and general appearance are appropriate for the head of Canada’s government.”

Would this happen in a real country?

In 2021 all levels of government in this wannabe nation-state spent $28,000 per person. That according to Statistics Canada. I realize this was during COVID, but multiply that by 37 million people and you’re talking $1 trillion in spending, so $10 million doesn’t sound like much even when considering inflation and stratospheric rises in real estate. Today the National Capital Commission says it would cost $36.6 million for renovations and that the “important rodent infestation” in the walls cannot be addressed until other structural issues get resolved. The NCC also said: “In the meantime, we use bait to control the situation, but that leaves us with excrement and carcasses between the walls and in the attic and basement spaces.”

If only I were making this up. But it’s all indicative of how we value such things. On the other hand, maybe we should start tours of 24 Sussex.

“Welcome to the official home of our prime minister. Over here is the entranceway but it’s no longer in use so you have to climb through the cracked window in the living room. Be careful of the broken glass. While there please pick up your mask and put it on because you don’t want to breathe in the radon gas never mind the mould that’s leaking from everywhere. And don’t mind the rats. By the way, I will be your guide today. My name is Freddy Kruger.”

Sign up for FREE and receive The Hub’s weekly email newsletter.

You'll get our weekly newsletter featuring The Hub’s thought-provoking insights and analysis of Canadian policy issues and in-depth interviews with the world’s sharpest minds and thinkers.