OTTAWA—The upkeep and improvement of official residences for the prime minister and other top federal officials comes with a continuing financial cost to Canadians.
Taxpayers have spent at least $11.7 million since 2019 to renovate the “country retreat” for prime ministers at Harrington Lake, in the Quebec hills a short drive from Ottawa. (It’s like an old Muskoka cottage for Torontonians, but much closer.)
Work involved a new exterior of the main house, new sprinklers and water tanks to supply them, plus the crown jewel: a new “kitchen,” priced at $735,000.
The costs are outlined in more than 1,000 pages of documents released through an access-to-information request.
The documents are emails and cost charts from the National Capital Commission (NCC), the federal property manager in Ottawa and nearby Gatineau. Beyond the main house, there are also major renovations to a guest house and the former caretaker’s cottage on the Harrington Lake property — all the buildings have heritage status.
The NCC said in a statement that “the scope referred to as ‘kitchen’ actually references the entire service area of the main building, which underwent significant rehabilitation. This service area (kitchen, pantries, laundries, storage areas and electrical rooms) is used for both personal and official uses.”
The documents show how the cost of the job rose from its earliest estimates.
Take the “kitchen” job. Originally budgeted at $551,000, it climbed to $648,000, and later to $735,000, the NCC’s figures show. The bill included $52,000 for a design consultant at one stage, though this was before the final cost rose.
Installing modern sprinklers added more than $200,000. The sprinklers needed a dependable water supply: two new underground tanks, set below the frost line. The problem is that the property is mainly on bedrock. The water tanks ended up costing $355,000.
The overall cottage repair was once budgeted at $3.5 million, for a building of 8,300 square feet. This rose to $4.4 million, $5.5 million, $5.8 million, and was finally approved in 2019 at $6.118 million.
Later, they threw in another million related to security, making the total $7.118 million.
Next came the 19th century farmhouse, which sometimes houses official visitors. It had low ceilings already, and architects realized that strengthening the floors would reduce this space even more. Their solution was to build a two-storey addition.
The budget grew steadily from 2017 to 2020 — from $1.9 million to $2.5 million to $2.7 million.
The old caretaker’s cottage was taken apart, moved and rebuilt, for another $1.9 million. It was once used as staff accommodations but had been derelict for years. The NCC has also been considering renovating a historic barn and has fixed a small bridge and a weir.
The Treasury Board has to allocate money for major jobs such as this one. The NCC did get $1 million in another way — it took money that was approved for repairs to 24 Sussex Drive, the prime minister’s official home, since it’s vacant and not being repaired yet anyway.
Heritage advocates have long stressed the importance of keeping the official government residences in good shape, for reasons of history and prestige, and bemoaned the lack of timely maintenance that has led to deterioration. But as the costs of repairs at sites such as 24 Sussex Drive, the official residence of the prime minister, which is currently not used by Justin Trudeau, have climbed, the prospect of making the now-substantial investments needed to refurbish them has become seen as more politically difficult.
The NCC says it would cost $89.1 million to catch up on all the overdue repairs and maintenance for its six official residences. It says bringing all six up to modern standards (for instance, in accessibility) would cost $175 million.
Critics, meanwhile, have been loath to see more tax money spent on the properties.
The federal director of the National Taxpayers’ Federation, for instance, called the expenses at Harrington Lake “astronomical.”
“This follows a long history of the NCC running up a huge tab on the taxpayers’ expense,” said Franco Terrazanno. “It’s coming at the worst possible time as the government is already a trillion dollars in debt. … Every single expense should be under the microscope.”
The capital’s official residences
24 Sussex Drive, home of the Prime Minister (but vacant).
Rideau Hall, home of the Governor General.
Stornoway, home of Leader of the Opposition.
7 Rideau Gate, guest house for senior foreign officials.
Gatineau Park, Quebec:
Harrington Lake, country home of the Prime Minister.
The Farm, home of Speaker of the House of Commons.
Stornoway’s latest assessed value (from 2016) is $4,486,000.
The assessment for 24 Sussex Drive is $13,317,000, which includes the land. The NCC says it needs repairs worth $36.6 million.
UPDATE — March 26, 2022 — This story has been updated to include a clarification from the National Capital Commission.
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