Demolition of our history is not sustainable

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Respect for built heritage and the history behind 24 Sussex Drive is something that should concern all Canadians.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 4, 2023.

OTTAWA—The trial balloon, floated last week about the demolition of 24 Sussex Drive, should be pricked.

Can you imagine a G7 country that does not have housing for its head of government? As former prime minister Jean Chrétien told the CBC earlier this year, the condition of 24 Sussex is an “embarrassment to the nation.”

Full disclosure: I am working with a not-for-profit heritage corporation that wants to save the prime minister’s residence by rebuilding it at a price tag substantially less than the $36.6-million quoted renovation cost.

The Heritage Ottawa Development Inc. (HODI) group is comprised of experts in conservation and restoration. Board members have all been involved in multiple projects to restore and retain built heritage in the nation’s capital. HODI’s board includes leaders in restoration adaptation like Sandy Smallwood, who saved Wallis House and many other heritage buildings from the wrecker’s ball.

HODI president Marc Denhez is challenging the price attached to the 24 Sussex restoration, comparing it to the grossly inflated cost attached to restoring the Aberdeen Pavilion in Lansdowne Park when developers were trying to justify demolition.

Affectionately known as the “Cow Palace,” Aberdeen was built in 1898 for the Central Canada Exhibition Association. Published cost estimates to restore the structure ballooned up to $82-million, prompting city council to approve demolition in 1991.

Community reaction to the destruction decision was swift. Heritage Ottawa led a massive community outcry, ultimately forcing a reversal of the demolition vote by a new council the following year. In the end, the city approved a restoration budget of $5.3-million, a far cry from the $82-million figure bandied about by those who supported demolition.

The same numerical bait and switch tactic appears to be happening in relation to the prime minister’s residence. The National Capital Commission, which has the lead in the project, said in a report last year that the price tag for restoration was almost $40-million.

That number has repeatedly been tossed around, but the NCC still refuses to release the financial documents backing up the inflated price.

Anonymous sources leak stories of the desperate condition of the building. It has mould and rats. Surprise, surprise, any building that has been unoccupied for almost a decade is going to be taken over by the rodent family.

The NCC’s refusal to release documents to verify the funding claim has been referred to the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, which has opened a file on the issue.

In the trial balloon floated in the media last week, security was the number one reason that anonymous sources claimed the official residence had to be moved. However, that claim also deserves further scrutiny. There is no security cost attached to an anonymous proposal to build a new residence on Rockcliffe parkland.

The NCC must also understand the environmental and legal implications of tearing down a classified federal heritage building. That classification means that any changes, including demolition, must be approved by the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office (FHBRO), an office in Parks Canada designed to assist other federal departments in protecting heritage buildings. FHBRO must apply the Treasury Board policy on management of real property.

The demolition of a classified national building also runs counter to the sustainable development goals set out by the United Nations.

“Embodied carbon” was a hot topic at the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference in Glasgow in 2021, led by members of the Climate Heritage Network. Embodied carbon is the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in demolition compared to restoration. The network’s view is that “the greenest building is one that is already built”. Chris Wiebe, of the National Trust for Canada, is the North American vice-chair of the global network.

Following last week’s news on moving the official residence, community groups are already researching the additional greenhouse gas emissions involved in a plan to tear 24 Sussex down, along with the carbon sink loss of parkland involved in building a new residence, with a bigger footprint for entertaining and parking.

Naturally politicians are loathe to weigh in on a residence that houses politicians. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre missed an opportunity when he took himself out of the debate by saying the residence where the prime minister lives would be his last priority.

No one expects it to be his first, but respect for built heritage and the history behind 24 Sussex is something that should concern all Canadians, especially someone who wants to live there someday.

Demolition of our history is not sustainable.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.