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Jerry Amernic: The rats of 24 Sussex

Commentary

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.”

How to enjoy Canada Day, according to Hub staff and writers

Commentary

Rain, wildfire smoke, and a nagging sense of colonial guilt may be putting a damper on some Canada Day celebrations this year, but at The Hub we’re determined to have a good time on July 1.

Whether it’s a small gathering with family and friends or a massive outdoor party with some CanRock luminaries, there are still a lot of options out there. We’ve assembled some of The Hub‘s contributors to tell us what they’ll be doing on Canada Day and what the holiday means to them.

Howard Anglin

Canada Day was a close call this year. Both Calgary and Toronto first cancelled their annual public celebrations and then quickly reinstated them after sharp backlashes. We’ll have to wait till next year to see if this marks a turning point against po-faced oikophobia or just one last reprieve, but for now we are still officially permitted to celebrate our country.

Selfishly, I wouldn’t miss the festivities: I don’t like fireworks, crowds, or public concerts. But I would regret what it said about our country to be too ashamed to mark its national holiday. Canada’s history includes much to be proud of and, in the sweep of history, comparatively little to regret, but you wouldn’t know it if you listened to our city councils, which seem more concerned about atoning for the wrongs of the past than fixing the problems of the present. Maybe they would have got a better reception if they’d proposed to use the money saved on fireworks to deal with tent cities.

While our city councillors brood on our national failings, I will be enjoying Canada Day as I usually do: performing a commemorative reading of the Hansard text for July 9, 1982, when a handful of Liberal Jacobins rammed through without quorum the name change from Dominion Day to Canada Day, then cracking a Hoyne pilsner, reading the passage from That Summer in Paris where Morley Callaghan knocks down Hemingway (our literary “burning down the White House” moment), and staring at the Pacific with a wondrous gratitude, like Alex McKenzie first scenting the salt sea at Bella Coola.

Rudyard Griffiths

Canada Day in recent years has become a wistful national observance for me. This stems from the experiences of an earlier part of my life when I started and ran for a decade, from the late ’90s into to end of the first decade of the century, a charity called the Dominion Institute (DI).

In the aftermath of the near miss of the Quebec referendum a group of us in our late 20s became animated by a simple idea: English-speaking Canada’s lack of awareness of its history, its growing amnesia about its past, was a threat to federalism and a unified country. Thanks to some luck, an early generous donor in the form of the Donner Foundation and a national moment where Canadians were looking for touchstones to shore up the country’s shaky sense of self, the DI was launched in 1997.

Over the next ten years we raised millions of dollars for educational programs that explored Canadian history, civics, and an understanding of national identity that consciously embraced our “colonial” past, warts and all. One of our initiatives I was most proud of was sending thousands of WWII and Korea War veterans into schools to talk firsthand with what ended up being hundreds of thousands of kids about their wartime experiences.

Looking back now on my decade-plus at the DI I am reminded of  L.T. Hartley’s famous quote “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So much has changed in a span of a few short years when it comes to our collective sense of history and nationhood.

For many of our fellow Canadians it is now all but impossible now to think of our past as a source of unity and pride. Now broad swaths of our history, especially its colonial chapters where so much of our uniquely Canadian identity was forged in war, nation-building, and internal conflict, are viewed as something that should be actively erased, torn down, and expunged from memory. It is quite simply impossible to think of starting an organization like the DI today. It would be pilloried into oblivion by a Tweet storm before you could sing “O Canada”.  

That is a loss for our country. Our need for touchstones of belonging today is evidently as great or greater than the aftermath of the Quebec Referendum. Hopefully someone, somewhere this July 1 is thinking about how we can bolster our unity as a nation in the turmoil and tumult of the 2020s. It is not mission impossible. Pendulums swing. Fads pass. Events often transpire to remind us what in fact is important.

To all our loyal Hub readers, a big happy Dominion Day. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Sean Speer

We have a binational household. Our two-year-old was born in Ottawa and our infant was born in New York City. The two-year-old now recognizes the Canadian flag and has a vague understanding that he’s Canadian and his brother is an American. (We haven’t yet gotten the youngest his Canadian citizenship.) He seems to like the distinction. It’s something special or different about each of them. It probably means that we should celebrate both Canada Day and the Fourth of July this year.

I don’t quite know though how the celebrations themselves ought to differ. How does one distinguish between the spirit of Peace, Order, and Good Government, and Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness in planning a backyard party? The legality of the fireworks perhaps?

Maybe I’ll just drink Canadian beer on Saturday and American beer on Tuesday. Or make the boys watch TSN’s day-long coverage of the first day of NHL free agency on Canada Day and Rocky IV or the original Red Dawn on the Fourth of July.

It’s a big decision. We may be unwittingly starting a family tradition. That’s the best part though of course. Being together as a family and having experiences and memories that may seem a bit unusual or different but they’re ultimately ours.

Who am I kidding? With two kids aged two and younger (and a poorly-behaved beagle), my wife, Katelin, and I are not really making the decisions anyway. We’re just trying to hold things together until the boys are finally asleep and mom can have a glass of wine and dad can have a beer. At that point, it really doesn’t matter where it’s from.

Happy Canada Day (and the Fourth of July) from our family to yours!

Amal Attar-Guzman

Growing up, I, along with my family and friends, celebrated Canada Day every year basically the same way: a barbecue or picnic, playing sports and card games, eating and drinking merrily, and then ending the night watching the fireworks. For us, Canada Day was a celebration of feeling at home in a country where we were safe and we can be who we want to be and nothing (and no one) can tell us otherwise.

However, that changed in 2020. Not only did the pandemic put a damper on things, but as issues of racial injustice in North America and stories of unmarked graves of Indigenous children the year after went to the forefront of social consciousness, to celebrate Canada Day seemed unseemly and even cruel. It left a bad taste in our mouths. This, along with economic and affordability challenges, Canada Day was put on the backburner.

This has been my stance for the last few years. But that has somewhat shifted recently. A close graduate friend of mine recently became a Canadian citizen after being a permanent resident for so many years. After suffering through the citizenship process, he finally took the oath. As I visited his and his partner’s apartment, a string of Canadian flags was still hanging up in their living room from celebrating this milestone days before.

Seeing and hearing the absolute excitement in their faces and voices immediately gave me perspective. I just imagined this is what my parents felt after they became Canadian citizens: finally becoming citizens in a stable country with ample opportunities. When I spoke to them about their immigration experience and citizenship ceremony, they still had this light in their eyes despite this occurring decades ago.

Any country’s history is not without its dark sides. But celebrating Canada Day is a statement, that in spite of all that, communities that were and still harmed are resilient and always push towards a better future. This spirit of resilience, fight, defiance, and gumption is what pushed Canada forward and to become better. This is the story of communities facing injustices, calling it out, and doing something about it. This is also the story of Canadians from all backgrounds and stripes who pushed innovative thinking and broke barriers when the society of the day was not ready to let go of status-quo thinking. They didn’t let anything stop them so why should we?

So this year, I will be celebrating Canada Day. I will be going to a picnic, playing sports and card games, eating and drinking merrily, and then ending the night watching the fireworks. My celebration is not to dismiss or discredit historical and current ills. My celebration is to acknowledge them while being inspired to actually do something about them. It is time to remember and celebrate our countryfolk’s grit and gumption- past, current, and future.

Stuart Thomson

Somehow I ended up in Ottawa alongside my three best friends from childhood. Four Haligonians landlocked in the nation’s capital.

We have two mandatory gatherings each year: the Christmas Daddies telethon hosted by CTV Atlantic in early December and Canada Day.

The telethon is an excuse to get together when the days are shortest and eat Halifax donairs. Canada Day is for eating burgers and chips and catching up before everyone goes off for separate summer holidays.

It’s also the day where the ambient and unspoken gratitude in my brain takes the shape of a conscious feeling. It’s a good day to remember how lucky I am that, like Sir John A. Macdonald, another Scottish-Canadian, “I was caught young and was brought to this country before I was very much corrupted.”

Karen Restoule

For as long as I can remember, I have spent every Canada Day at our family home in Dokis First Nation. It starts with a slow morning with a big breakfast, before heading out to local gathering spot for a day of sun, swimming, visiting, and cold drinks. We enjoy an outdoor pickerel fish fry (or walleye, for some of you!) before we cap off the day with marshmallows over the fire, beers, guitars, and fireworksWhile this year, we won’t be lighting fireworks in response to the dry environmental conditions, lots of fireworks.

It’s a full day spent appreciating life here in Canada and all that it has to offer: fresh air, vast lands, fresh water, family, friends, and good cheer!

In recent years, Canadians have been awakened to some of the harsher realities of our shared history. As some, generally more urban types, have struggled to make sense of it all, they have taken to public platforms to express shame and guilt on anyone celebrating Canada Day, including Indigenous peoples.

I agree that — yes — it is tough to reconcile a day that both celebrates the beauty of Canada and serves as a reminder to First Nations peoples of the imposition of British authority and governance that led to the destruction of our laws, governance, families, and way of life. It is especially challenging when your very own family has lived through the wickedness of residential school, day school, as mine and so many other families have.

However, this is not something that is front of mind on July 1st exclusively. We carry this intergenerational experience with us every day. And while I cannot speak to the experience or views of all Indigenous peoples, I can say that in my experience, a deliberate choice is made on Canada Day and every day to look beyond the darker points to see the positive advancements being made in our time, be it the justice served through residential school settlement and others or through opportunities created through key partnerships on major projects that advance economic reconciliation.

These have been advanced jointly by Indigenous and Canadian citizens alike, with recognition for the injustices of the past and an ambition for a better future.

And that is what I will be celebrating this year on Canada Day in Dokis Bay.

Janet Bufton

Weather and wildfire smoke willing, we’ll be privileged to spend Canada Day weekend in Ontario cottage country and Canada Day itself camping. We’ll take the kids to stay with my parents in the Haliburton Highlands and meet up to camp overnight with old friends for a reunion on Lake Simcoe.

Kid One (almost four) is interested in holidays so we will probably talk about Canada Day. We are so lucky to live in a country like Canada and we try to balance appreciating that luck with the ways that Canada has never been good enough—always a work in progress. I hope she will want to make her community and her country a better place and have sympathy and understanding for how others try to do that, too.

I’m an unrepentant urbanite, but I can still enjoy salamander, frog, and crayfish catching, and I hope both kids can get a kick out of those things for a few days. Plus, any excuse to stop for wet Cajun wings at The Granite in Bancroft.

And I expect Kid Two will have fun marauding new and non-babyproofed environments.

Sandie Reid and her daughter-in-law Candace Reid ride a float during a Canada Day parade in the rural community of Cremona, Alta., Friday, July 1, 2022. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press.

Jack Mitchell

To celebrate the Day of the Canadian Dominion, the Mitchell-Galvanek household will first rise early to stare at the calendar and realise there is no scheduled baseball: not a practice, not a game, not a lesson, not even at the batting cage; and the penny will drop. We will then make our way to the Halifax Common, each sporting some piece of red or white clothing—though not the full-on Carnival garb of an Ottawa Canada Day. There is usually a flypast at noon, maybe a paratroop drop, and a general bubbling of celebration. After that we’ll walk home to escape the heat (we hope!) of the day and watch a movie about Canadian history—probably Hyena Road, which the boys have been asking about and are probably old enough for. Likewise, this year they’ll be allowed to stay up to watch the fireworks over the harbour. Then to bed, as the baseball schedule only concedes one full day to patriotism.

Malcolm Jolley

There aren’t a lot of truly Canadian foods that belong to the English-speaking people of this land who settled west of Montreal. This is largely because until recently the American border was porous. Between 1850 and 1950 it’s estimated a million Canadians emigrated to the USA and a million Americans reciprocated by moving here. They brought their recipes with them.

It’s also because having a truly distinct national cuisine requires some tradition of peasantry. Things get interesting when people are poor enough to have to stretch out bits of meat or cook with weird vegetables. The settlers that cleared the land west of the Ottawa River surely worked hard, but they were free and owned their farms. They had the privilege of making boringly bland, New England-style meals from the fruits of their labour.

For Victorian Canadian food innovation, like today, one has to look to enterprise. There’s a reason Toronto is known as Hogtown, and in the middle of the nineteenth-century English emigre William Davies decided his fortune would be found in a pork barrel. He rolled his pickled pork loin in a yellow dust made from the same peas people made soup from and hoped to sell it to the Royal Navy, who were busy clearing Ontario’s old-growth forests to mill the masts for their ships.

Peameal bacon was a hit, but not so much with the fleet of the Empire as with the colonials. Descendants of them, like me, know peameal makes a superlative sandwich that can’t be found anywhere else. Some time around the middle of the day on July 1st I will be enjoying one with friends and family with a cold locally brewed ale. I hope my compatriots will enjoy some version of the same thing, maybe Kosher or vegan, or with a seltzer instead of a brew. That part doesn’t matter, it’s the nod to our history that counts. That will pave our way to the future.

Richard Shimooka

Over the past decade or so, I’ve increasingly identified Canada Day with a single person, my grandfather-in-law Ron, whose birthday lands on that date. Usually there’s a party—as with this year which will mark the celebrate of his 90th birthday.

Now many cynical readers will think this is clearly an attempt to ingratiate myself with my in-laws’ extended family, and it isn’t (yet). Ron embodies many positive Canadian values, including selflessness, hard work, and tolerance, which are worth expanding on.

Ron was born into a hardscrabble life in the coastal forestry communities. There he cultivated cultural awareness and acceptance, as First Nations, Asian and European immigrants interacted in close proximity. Later he would serve in the Royal Canadian Navy as a cook, after which he returned and led a quiet, but fulfilling life building a family and helping his community. For all the time I’ve known him, he’s constantly volunteered to help others, often by applying the cooking skills he learned from the navy to serve hundreds of people. I’ve been reliably informed by a number of individuals of impeccable standing (okay that is a shameless effort at ingratiation) that he has long acted in these ways.

So I can’t really think of a better way to spend Canada Day than to celebrate Ron’s birthday and his remarkable life.

Fireworks explode above the Peace Tower and Centre Block during Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, July 1, 2019. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.

Steve Lafleur

Canada Day is a time to celebrate and a time to remember—both the good and the bad of Canadian history. It’s possible to be proud of the good parts while conscious of the bad parts. Indeed, progress depends on it.

Canada is the best country in the world, and the one that has most successfully weathered the global populist storm. But we have a lot of work to do. Some of that is rectifying injustices of the past, some is addressing injustices of the present. We’ve yet to achieve the task of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, and we’re in real danger of locking a generation out of the housing market. We need to look both backwards and forwards to solve our problems.

That’s what I’ll be thinking about on Canada Day. A great, imperfect country that can be even better in the future, if we make the right choices.

Brian Bird

I am marking this Canada Day by celebrating the arrival of a new Canadian. On June 28th, my wife and I welcomed our daughter Michelle to this world.

The proximity of Michelle’s birth to Canada’s birthday renews my gratitude for the blessings we enjoy in this country. No place is perfect, but in countless ways, Canada is a beacon that shines brightly within the community of nations.

Canada of course faces challenges, the most pressing of which may reside in the stitches of our social fabric. How we proceed with matters like reconciliation, euthanasia, and gender—among other issues—will shape the future of this country in fundamental respects.

Even in the early days of parenthood, the impulse to realize a better Canada commands deeper significance for me. We will not always agree on what “better” looks like for Canada, but we improve our chances by imagining life when we are no longer here. The objective features of a good society appear more readily, in other words, when we think beyond ourselves.

What kind of country do I desire for Michelle and her generation? This question will define every Canada Day for me from now on.

L. Graeme Smith

One of the many things Real Canadians of Van-Ott-Mon-Tor stock don’t have the slightest idea about is a Canadian summer. Sure there’s a summer down there. But if you live below this line, I’m sad to say you’re a sorry southerner only experiencing a shadow of our sunny season’s true capacity.

In Edmonton, where I’m typing, the summer solstice this year stretched itself into a day lasting 17 hours, two minutes, and 45 seconds. In Thunder Bay, it’s 17 hours and 46 minutes. Keep going up to the true north of the True North and you’ll meet the midnight sun in Nunavut, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories. 

This year for Canada Day I’ll be driving down to Ponoka to watch the stampede and take in the small-town festivities until evening. And later that night I’ll drive back to Edmonton while the sun is still holding high above the horizon and the day won’t be in any rush to end. 

If any of that sounds nice to you then maybe this time next year come north, come west, come watch a rodeo, come take in the fireworks celebrating our Dominion even if you have to wait until a little later in the day for that last one because up this way the sun is going to take its time to slip away and there’s always some light that lingers longer than you expect.