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Could two former prime ministers help rescue 24 Sussex Drive?

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A joint effort spearheaded by Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper, from two different political parties, “takes the politics out of it,” a former NCC board member says.

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A charitable effort to restore 24 Sussex Dr. to its former glory could be spearheaded by two former prime ministers.

As first reported in the Globe and Mail, Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper have volunteered to lead a campaign to raise the money required to restore the official prime minister’s residence, each of them calling upon their wide network to do so.

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Former National Capital Commission board member and interim chair Bob Plamondon said he recently toured the 24 Sussex grounds with Chrétien and Tobi Nussbaum, chief executive officer of the NCC, which is responsible for the official residences.

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A joint effort spearheaded by two former prime ministers, from two different political parties, “takes the politics out of it,” Plamondon said in an interview.

“Provided they don’t need funding from the government, in theory they could take this project on and contract with a registered charity,” he said. “As well, there’s a certain efficiency in the decision-making process when it’s a small group.”

Jean Chretien Stephen Harper
A March 23 file photo of former prime ministers Jean Chrétien, left, and Stephen Harper. Photo by BLAIR GABLE /POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Chrétien and Harper, both of whom lived at 24 Sussex, are “ideally suited to take on some risks and make some of the tradeoffs necessary to deliver this project, this residence, in a cost efficient and effective manner,” Plamondon added.

The residence has been vacant for years, its long-standing issues with everything from pest infestations to asbestos well-documented and its future something of a political hot potato. It is in the process of being “decommissioned” by the NCC, with an estimated price tag for rehabilitation of more than $36 million.

As it stands, the Victorian house built in 1866 is down to bare studs, its wiring and plumbing removed at a cost of $4.3 million.

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Aside from Chrétien and Harper, it was also once the home of prime ministers Louis St-Laurent, John Diefenbaker, Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark, John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell and Paul Martin. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has lived at Rideau Cottage, next to the Governor-General’s residence on the grounds of Rideau Hall, since being elected in 2015.

When asked about fundraising plans, a spokesperson said the NCC had presented a number of options to the federal government, but did not elaborate on the details.

Nussbaum was not made available for an interview.

Peter Coffman, an associate professor of history and theory of architecture at Carleton University, said it was “well past time” to repair 24 Sussex and “treat it with the respect that it merits, both as a heritage building and also official residence of the prime minister.”

The obstacles to doing so have “always been purely political,” Coffman said, but this proposal could “potentially removes the partisanship, which is a huge factor.”

The “extraordinary house” was not initially designed as the prime minister’s residence, but rather was built for lumber baron Joseph Currier, who later became a member of Parliament. Other lumber barons lived there until the federal government appropriated it in the 1940s. Prime ministers resided in the building for more than half a century.

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“It’s one of the most historic and important heritage buildings, not just in Ottawa, but the country,” Coffman said. “I can’t think of another country in the world that would have allowed this to happen to the official residence to its head of government.”

At the White House in Washington or No. 10 Downing in London, “this type of neglect would never be allowed,” because those residences “are not the property of any individual occupant, but the nation,” Coffman said. “For some reason, we can’t seem to see it that way.

“Maintaining (24 Sussex) would be an act of self-respect we can’t seem to conjure up.”

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