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PM’s official residence becoming a costly ‘debacle,’ say Conservatives

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Official residence of the Prime Minister

OTTAWA — Nearly four years after Justin Trudeau opted not to move into the prime minister’s official residence over concerns about its crumbling state, the building remains vacant — except for staff who continue to use the kitchen to prepare meals for Trudeau and his family.

And it appears no decisions will be made on the future of the residence until well after the fall federal election.

The federal Conservatives accuse the Trudeau government of dithering over “critical” upgrades to the stately yet run-down home, and needlessly costing taxpayers more money in the process.

At the same time, none of the main federal party leaders appears willing to opine on whether the building should be torn down or renovated, or whether they would live in the residence if it were upgraded.

Asked by The Canadian Press their preferences for what to do with the building if elected — or re-elected — to office, the Liberals referred all questions to the National Capital Commission (NCC), which oversees dozens of properties in the capital region; the New Democrats did not provide a response and the Conservatives referred to the project as just one more Liberal blight under Justin Trudeau’s leadership.

“The renovation costs of 24 Sussex Drive are a failure that Justin Trudeau has been unable to fix in four years,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s spokesman, Daniel Schow, said in a statement.

“The NCC has estimated that it will cost nearly $100 million to renovate 24 Sussex and other official residences. This is an unacceptable situation, and unfortunately, taxpayers are being stuck with the bill.”

Scheer, if elected prime minister, would “look for innovative ways to break through the red tape and the overregulation that has created this debacle,” said Schow.

The Conservatives would not say, however, whether Scheer would elect to live at 24 Sussex should he become prime minister in the fall. Scheer currently resides in another building managed and maintained by the NCC; Stornoway, the Official Opposition leader’s residence.

Prior to being defeated by the Liberals in 2015, former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper lived in 24 Sussex Drive for a decade, but would not approve any spending on the building beyond necessary or emergency repairs.

Harper was warned by then-auditor general Sheila Fraser in a 2008 report that more than $10 million in repairs were needed just to make it safe to inhabit.

No one expects the NCC to decide the fate of the building until after the October election, said David Flemming with Heritage Ottawa, which wrote to the prime minister in March calling for the creation of a non-partisan committee to decide what to do with 24 Sussex.

Heritage Ottawa made clear in that letter that it prefers the building be renovated, not demolished.

“Please do not condemn this fine building to landfill,” the letter stated.

The Prime Minister’s Office has not responded to the letter, Flemming said.

In a report prepared in April last year, the NCC classified 24 Sussex as being in a “critical” state of disrepair.

The report assessed the building’s replacement value at $38.46 million. At the same time it determined the cost of maintaining the structure at nearly what it’s worth: $34.53 million. That figure did not include necessary upgrades to security and grounds maintenance, nor repairs to the nearby pool building, which the NCC described as “rotting.”

The home, built in 1868 by American-born lumber baron and member of Parliament Joseph Merrill, has suffered decades of neglect since it was expropriated by the government in 1943. It last underwent major renovations in 1951.

Its outdated wiring risks causing a fire, the drain pipes regularly clog, the exterior stonework is crumbling and the building is filled with asbestos, the NCC was told last year.

“The building systems at 24 Sussex have reached the point of imminent or actual failure,” said the report.

Beyond renovations, it has been costing taxpayers nearly $228,000 annually, on average, just to operate and maintain the property, the NCC said.

Trudeau himself, who lived at 24 Sussex as a child when his father Pierre was prime minister, acknowledged in an early 2018 CBC interview that anyone agreeing to spend anything on the house risks the wrath of the electorate.

“No prime minister wants to spend a penny of taxpayer dollars on upkeeping that house,” Trudeau said.

To date, no options for dealing with 24 Sussex have been formally presented to the NCC, spokesman Jean Wolff said recently.

The kitchen in the house is still being used almost daily. When Trudeau and his family are in Ottawa, staff there prepare meals and deliver the food a few hundred metres down the road to a cottage behind Rideau Hall where Trudeau, his wife and kids have lived since shortly after being elected.

Former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin has argued that 24 Sussex is a historical landmark that merits preservation. Kim Campbell, who was prime minister for four months in 1993, has suggested it be knocked down.

So has former prime minister Joe Clark’s wife, Maureen McTeer. She argued in 2015 the building lacks architectural value and should be bulldozed and replaced with a building that could show off Canada’s best architects and designers.

But her suggested timeline — making it a Canada 2017 project to mark the country’s 150th anniversary — passed by with no action taken.

The building is designated a heritage site in Ontario by the Federal Heritage Building Review Office.

But that designation wouldn’t prevent the federal government from demolishing the building, said Flemming.

“They could tear it down,” he said.

Terry Pedwell, The Canadian Press


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Canadians killed in Afghanistan honoured during emotional dedication ceremony

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OTTAWA — Emotions ran free in Ottawa Saturday as the more than 150 Canadians killed in Afghanistan were honoured during a sombre ceremony attended by hundreds of family members, many of whom continue to struggle with the loss of their loved ones.

The ceremony involved the re-dedication of a cenotaph built during the war in honour of the fallen. It stood first in Kabul and later at the Kandahar Airfield, where the Canadian Forces was headquartered for most of its time in Afghanistan, serving as a place of reflection and remembrance for those overseas.

Under overcast skies, the families and former comrades of the fallen listened as Gov.-Gen. Julie Payette, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance and others spoke of the enduring legacy left behind by those who fought and died during Canada’s 13-year war in Afghanistan.

One-hundred-fifty-eight Canadian soldiers died during the mission, which started shortly after the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry, journalist Michelle Lang and two civilian contractors were also killed during the war.

“Because of their sacrifice, the Kandahar stadium is used for playing soccer,” Sajjan, who served two tours in Afghanistan, told those in attendance. “Because of their sacrifice, young girls are allowed to freely go to school. Because of their sacrifice, we are safer at home. We will never forget the price these women and men paid.”

Yet much of the ceremony focused on the families of those who died, whose lives were irreversibly changed during the mission even as much of the rest of the country moved on, turning the page on the war in Afghanistan when the last Canadian troops returned home five years ago.

Families like that of Pvt. David Robert James Byers, whose daughter was born a few months after he and three other Canadian soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber in September 2006. Byers’ mother Catherine Jane Byers and his daughter were among the 600 family members to attend Saturday’s ceremony.

“We’re the ones that live with this every day,” Catherine Jane Byers said as she stood outside the specially built memorial hall where the cenotaph, comprised of plaques bearing the names and pictures of the fallen, is housed. “We’re the ones that celebrate birthdays. See our grandchildren grow up without a father. That is our reality.”

The re-dedication ceremony at the Department of National Defence’s new headquarters building in west Ottawa was actually a redo for the military, which came under fire after holding a private event in May. Some families were angry they were not invited at that time, prompting an apology from Vance and plans for Saturday’s event.

Afterward, Catherine Jane Byers and several other relatives of those killed in Afghanistan told reporters they were grateful for the second ceremony, during which Payette, Sajjan and the rest underscored this country’s gratefulness to those who paid the ultimate price — and the loved ones they left behind.

“All of you who lost someone … you know what has been lost,” Payette said. “A wound that this memorial can acknowledge even if it cannot fully heal. But it must be acknowledged, and that is why we are here today, to focus our attention on these brave men and women and the people who loved them.”

While many family members struggled to contain their emotions during the ceremony, which included the laying of wreaths, a flypast by Canadian Forces aircraft and the playing of the Last Post and the Lament, they weren’t alone; Vance was forced to stop several times during his remarks to gather his composure and wipe away tears.

Vance served two tours in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, a time period that coincided with some of the worst losses for the Canadian military during the war. He recalled his visits to the cenotaph when it was in Kandahar, saying it served as not only a place of mourning but also of solace and comradeship for those who served on the mission.

“The cenotaph contains the grief,” Vance said, “but also carries the hopes and fear, the courage and vitality of the people who lived and those who died and the mission they were trying to accomplish.”

Some have questioned whether the cenotaph, which was designed and built by Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, should be in a more public space rather than its current location inside what is essentially a security zone. Anyone wishing to visit it now must register with the Defence Department for a guided tour.

Theresa Charbonneau, whose son Cpl. Andrew Grenon was killed along with two other soldiers when their armoured vehicle was attacked in September 2008, supported the current location in part because of that security but also because of its day-to-day proximity to other service members.

“I know it’s under lock and key. I like it under lock and key,” she said, adding: “Where else would we put it so that it could be close to their comrades? NDHQ is the perfect spot. Their lives were involved here. This was their second family. This is a good place for it.”

The government has promised to build a separate national memorial for the war in Afghanistan that will be placed in a public site near the Canadian War Museum.

Jim Davis, whose son Cpl. Paul Davis was killed when his vehicle flipped in Kandahar in March 2006, said he would continue to visit the cenotaph, which carries a special meaning for the families of the fallen as well as all those Canadians who served in Afghanistan.

“I feel not only my son’s spirit, I feel the spirit of his fallen comrades,” Davis said. “I can go to his grave and he’s not there. But if I go in here, his spirit’s in here. I feel it.”

—Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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For recent immigrant youngsters, nascent soccer club provides continuity

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soccer player

OTTAWA — Omran Alahmad has played soccer every week since his arrival in Ottawa almost four years ago, much the way he did as a boy growing up in Syria.

Alahmad, 18, travelled through Jordan to come to Canada in 2015 with his parents and five siblings, but he was determined that it wouldn’t mean giving up on the sport he’s played since he was just three years old.

“I’ve been playing since I was three years old,” he said. “We started playing on the street.”

Before long, Alahmad soon found himself a member of Eagles FC — a soccer club comprising nearly 60 newcomers to Canada, including immigrants and refugees, that established itself as a full-blown club last September.

“I used to see kids playing soccer in the park … some of them were really talented,” said team manager Noor Sakhniya, who helped the players in establishing their own club. “They couldn’t play with a club because they couldn’t afford it.”

The registration fees at Ottawa soccer clubs vary between $600 and $2,000, he said: “That’s a lot of money for an immigrant family that has two or more kids who want to play soccer.”

Immigrant kids risk ending up spending a lot of time on the street if they aren’t occupied by a sport they like, said Sakhniya. “When we make them commit with the team at least for two or three days a week, we save them from troubles.”

The number of soccer players in Canada is growing every year. According to the Canada Soccer Association, there were more than 810,000 registered players, coaches and referees involved in soccer in the country in 2018.

Much of that popularity has been driven by immigration. Nearly 7.6 million foreign-born individuals who took part in the 2016 census said they came to Canada through the immigration process, representing 21.9 per cent of Canada’s total population — a proportion that continues to overtake the 22.3 per cent recorded during the 1921 census, the highest level since Confederation.

Some of the immigrant players have pursued soccer in different countries. Abbas Ali, 20, is a computer engineering student. He’s played soccer in Syria, Turkey and Canada since he fled war-torn Iraq 16 years ago.

“I’m going to carry on (playing soccer), for sure,” Ali said.

The time he spends playing the game is an opportunity to make friends and to engage in other social activities with his teammates. “These guys are all my friends,” he said, gesturing towards his teammates.

Sport is a social institution that brings people together and it’s a part of the culture, said Karen Foster, a sociologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “It can help people get out of isolation.”

Foster said familiar social activities are vital in helping immigrants integrate into Canadian society, and are especially important for teenagers who are likely feeling displaced and don’t have as many opportunities to get involved in activities without their families.

The men’s team is now competing in Ottawa Carleton Soccer League — “our goal is to qualify to Ontario Soccer League,” said Sakhniya — and the club has already established three other teams for kids under 12. “We are going to start a team for girls as well.”

The club is a not-for-profit organization, so the players are only charged for the cost of the activities including the league participation fees. The next thing is to find a sponsor, he added.

“I want to help immigrant kids to showcase their talents, so Canada’s soccer can benefit from their talents,” Sakhniya said.

“It’s the most growing sport (in Canada), and immigrants need to tap into this sport to help their new country. We have some excellent players, who are 14 to 16 years old. They could go play for university teams, famous clubs and even the national team when Canada co-hosts the 2026 World Cup.”

Maan Alhmidi , The Canadian Press

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august, 2019

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