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Fate of prime minister’s residence up in the air as staff move out due to hazards

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OTTAWA — The Canadian government has spent billions trying to solve the country’s housing crisis. But when it comes to fixing the prime minister’s own crumbling official residence? That’s a different story.

The picturesque mansion, known by its address of 24 Sussex Drive, spans 34 rooms and is tucked beside the Ottawa River. Built in 1868, it’s been the designated home of the country’s prime ministers since 1950.

It’s split into private and public areas, allowing the prime minister’s family to live in part of the home while official events are held in a separate space.

That’s an ideal setup given a head of government’s hosting duties. But the country’s current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, hasn’t lived there since he was a kid.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper moved out after losing the 2015 federal election to the Liberals, and Trudeau opted not to move into the home where he lived as a boy when his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was prime minister — instead settling in at a residence on the nearby grounds of Rideau Hall.

The issues plaguing 24 Sussex today are the same that kept Trudeau from his homecoming. Only worse.

A 2021 report by the National Capital Commission, the body that manages the country’s official residences, said the registered heritage property has gone without “significant investment” for more than 60 years and that “expensive and urgent repair” was needed.

The price tag: $37 million.

Disrepair has become so severe that the building is now being closed off to all staff. The commission announced this week that “continuously aging and worsening materials and systems” require “more significant actions” to deter fire hazards, water damage and air quality issues. Removal of asbestos and “obsolete” systems will begin next spring.

The idea that 24 Sussex is now too perilous to set foot in has renewed questions over what the federal government’s long-term plans are for the building. Opposition parties want answers.

“When people are struggling to make ends meet, it’s hard to justify spending millions to renovate an official residence,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in a written statement Friday.

“But a decision just needs to be made: the neglected renovations, delays and indecisiveness about what to do with the building is what has caused the run-up in expenses.”

Julie Vignola, a critic for the Bloc Québécois, said in a written statement that successive Liberal and Conservative governments failed to spend the money to ensure the residence remained in good shape, which has driven up the cost of renovations to nearly $40 million.

“We cannot afford to pay the price for the federal government’s complete lack of accountability,” she said in French.

Procurement Minister Helena Jaczek, whose portfolio includes the NCC, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

For David Flemming, chair of the advocacy committee at Heritage Ottawa, 24 Sussex is a case of “demolition by neglect” and an issue his group has been calling for action on for years.

He said it’s common to see private owners and developers allow buildings with heritage value to fall into a state of disrepair. “It’s a bit embarrassing to have your national government do something like this.”

Sir Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II have been among 24 Sussex’s illustrious guests.

Flemming acknowledged the optics of the federal government spending millions to fix up the prime minister’s residence may not be great, but said it’s “the cost of doing business as a country.”

Trudeau alluded to those optics in a 2018 CBC interview. “No prime minister wants to spend a penny of taxpayer dollars on upkeeping that house,” he said at the time.

Before he was elected Conservative leader, Pierre Poilievre criticized Trudeau several years ago for renovating another of the prime minister’s residences at Harrington Lake in western Quebec. At the time, he argued the construction wasn‘t done transparently.

Poilievre did not respond Friday to a request for comment about what he thinks should happen to 24 Sussex. He’s currently living with his family in Stornoway, where the Official Opposition leader typically resides.

That home is slightly smaller, only boasting 19 rooms, but like the prime minister’s residence, it’s designed with space to host official functions.

Meanwhile, the NCC said operating 24 Sussex in its current state has cost about $122,000 annually for the past three years.

Flemming said his group would like to see “something” done with the property. Period.

Over the years there have been no shortage of offers to help.

Back in 2015, some suggested that a reality TV renovation show should be the one to give 24 Sussex its much-needed facelift.

In fact, Ben Mulroney, son of former prime minister Brian Mulroney and a past resident himself, was among those who tossed around the idea.

The state of the mansion has become something of a joke in Canadian culture.

When Paul Martin was prime minister in the early 2000s, he took part in a skit with comedian Rick Mercer where they covered one of the windows with plastic using a hair dryer — a DIY trick to keep out the cold.

“It gets a little drafty here in the wintertime,” Martin quipped.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2022.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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Statistics Canada reports merchandise trade deficit $160 million in December

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Ottawa – Statistics Canada says the country posted a merchandise trade deficit of $160 million in December as both exports and imports fell compared with November.

The result followed a revised deficit of $219 million for November compared with an initial reading for the month that showed a $41 million deficit.

Statistics Canada says exports in December fell 1.2 per cent in the month to $63.0 billion. Energy exports fell 7.6 per cent to $14.3 billion, while exports of farm, fishing and intermediate food products dropped 9.9 per cent to $5.3 billion.

Meanwhile, imports dropped 1.3 per cent in December to $63.1 billion as imports of consumer goods fell 6.4 per cent to $12.1 billion and motor vehicles and parts dropped 6.0 per cent to $9.9 billion.

In volume terms, total exports in December rose 0.9 per cent, while import volumes fell 1.9 per cent.

For the whole of 2022, Statistics Canada says the country posted a merchandise trade surplus of $20.1 billion, up from a surplus of $4.6 billion in 2021.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2023.

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Mendicino: foreign-agent registry would need equity lens, could be part of ‘tool box’

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By Dylan Robertson in Ottawa

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino says a registry to track foreign agents operating in Canada can only be implemented in lockstep with diverse communities.

“There is a historical context when it comes to some communities within this country and their relationship with [security] agencies and the law-enforcement community,” Mendicino told the House committee on Canada-China relations Monday evening.

“We need agencies to be inclusive, diverse, culturally sensitive.”

Two months ago, the Liberals said they will eventually consult the public on the possible creation of a foreign agent registry, to prevent outside interference in Canadian affairs.

But the government has yet to formally launch that consultation.

The United States and Australia have public registries that require people advocating for a foreign state to register their activities, under penalty of fines or jail time.

Mendicino told the committee that Ottawa has to be careful to not isolate communities who have felt under the microscope of security agencies. He also told reporters after his testimony that Ottawa is taking the idea to its own advisory panels before soliciting public input.

“I wouldn’t describe it as a hesitation; I think we need to be diligent and thoughtful and inclusive, when it comes to bringing all Canadians along in the modernization of the tools and the arsenal that we create for our national security and intelligence communities,” he told the committee.

Mendicino also told MPs a foreign agent registry alone would not drastically alter Canada’s ability to detect and confront national-security threats, and would only be launched as part of “a tool box” of other measures.

“While there is attention to looking at each of the examples of tools we might consult on, including the foreign-agent registry, I would discourage the members of this committee from quickly concluding that any one of these in isolation will work by itself,” he said.

Conservative public-safety critic Raquel Dancho accused the Liberals of stalling on launching a registry.

“Anything that is stopping it would just be an excuse at this point. I think any government that’s operating through legitimate diplomatic relations in Canada should welcome an official registry,” she said in an interview between witness testimony.

“That should be sort of the cost of doing business in Canada through diplomatic relations.”

Mendicino appeared at the committee based on a request last October from MPs to have senior officials testify on three allegedly illegal police stations operating in the Greater Toronto Area.

Since then, advocates for Chinese democracy have alleged China is running two other police stations in Canada, including one in Vancouver.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told MPs that Mounties are only aware of four alleged police stations and that officers have attended the scene in uniforms to gather information and be seen.

She believes that has yielded tips from the public, and noted that at least one of the apparent police stations seemed to have operated in the backroom of a commercial business.

Lucki noted that no one has been charged in connection with these so-called police stations, and suggested the public would be informed if that was the case.

Similarly, Mendicino said the public would be made aware if any diplomats had been ordered to leave Canada in relation to the issue.

Yet NDP foreign-affairs critic Heather McPherson questioned how police are handling tips from communities who allege they’re being targeted by foreign countries.

The Edmonton MP said constituents who are Uyghur or originating from Hong Kong have reported being passed between the RCMP, local police and an RCMP-run hotline, and that local police seem unaware how to handle the reports.

“We’re hearing a very different story form people who are living in these communities,” McPherson said.

More officials will testify Monday night from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP and Public Safety Canada.

The evening meeting follows the appearance of a Chinese balloon that drifted over Canadian territory before it was spotted over the skies of Montana, leading opposition parties to ask why Ottawa didn’t alert Canadians earlier.

Last November, the federal Liberals unveiled their Indo-Pacific strategy, which calls for stronger ties with countries other than China to counterbalance Beijing’s approach to human rights and trade.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 6, 2023.

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