For some days, it was looking like the dapper new Prime Minister of Canada was homeless.
After setting off a cacophony of headlines following a decisive victory—not least around his hotness—neither Justin Trudeau, nor Canadians, seemed entirely sure where his shower curtain was going to hang, or in what moving box he might find the wine opener.
One moment (shortly after his Liberal Party nabbed 180-plus seats to form government), much was being trumpeted that the “JFK Jr. of Canada” was going to be heading home to the very house that he lived in as a child, when his dad, the flamboyant Pierre Trudeau, ruled Canada for 16 years—and where every PM has been expected to live since the so-called 24 Sussex Drive became the official residence in 1951.
The next, noises were afoot that 24 Sussex Drive was perhaps not quite feasible for Justin the Gen-X dauphin, his comely wife, Sophie, and their trio of tots under 8.
And then, this past Monday, after a flurry of rumors, an official announcement: Canada’s fashionable first family was, indeed, set to break with tradition and, instead, setting up shop down the street.
“Justin Trudeau, his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, and their three children will be immediately relocating to Rideau Cottage, part of the Rideau Hall grounds in the National Capital Region,” read a statement from his Liberal Party.
Located on the grounds of the residence of the Governor-General—the representative of the head of state in Canada, i.e. the Queen—this is no ordinary cottage: It has 22 rooms.
Symbolism-wise, however, it’s the equivalent of the Prime Minister, in Britain, deciding not to have his pizzas delivered to 10 Downing, or the President of the United States skipping out on the whole 1600 Pennsylvania bit. So, what gives?
The home at 24 Sussex—a 34-room limestone edifice set on the south bank of the Ottawa River that’s welcomed guests such as Sir Winston Churchill, as well as John and Jackie Kennedy, over the years—has seen better days, it appears.
A “decrepit, drafty old barn” is how one Canadian columnist put it the other day, itemizing its problems (bad wiring, asbestos in the walls, wonky air conditioning, a leaky roof, etc, etc).
“Someone needs to just get The Property Brothers on it,” a political insider quipped to me at a party, in Toronto, the other night, when the conversation inevitably turned to 24 Sussex (topic numero uno since the election!). They were only half-joking.
The problems at the Prime Ministerial pile are hardly new, and have only been allowed to mount with one occupant, after another, unwilling—it would appear—to risk the high-and-mighty charge from the Canadian public for spending money on renovations.
The restoration has long been mired in political doo-doo. But it appears that the Trudeaus’ decision not to move in may be down to an effort to finally getting the necessary repairs and renovations done.
The revelation that the Trudeau clan might not be moving into 24 Sussex, after all, initially came, curiously enough, from the new Prime Minister’s mother, Margaret Trudeau. She let it slip it to a reporter, mere days after her son got his new job.
A notorious hell-raiser and Studio 54 habitué in her time, Margaret, of course, lived there 40 years ago herself, when she was married to Trudeau’s father—and she’s never disguised her personal dislike of the dynastic residence.
In her 2010 memoir, Changing My Mind, she called 24 Sussex Drive, “a jail, the jewel in the crown of Canada’s penitentiary system.” Ouch.
The last memorable update to the property actually occurred when Trudeau the first had an indoor pool installed.
Though the money for it was raised by private donors, it didn’t stop it from becoming a mini-scandal “when the press caught wind of the project (despite the Liberal’s efforts to keep it under wraps),” as The Walrus, a Canadian periodical, recalled recently.
Much was made of the fact that the pool cost four times as much as a pool installed at the White House, in 1975.
This is the same pool that Princess Diana zipped by to use a few years later when she was in Canada, and needed to get in a few laps. Justin, then merely a boy, fondly remembers running into her in the driveway of 24 Sussex on that day.
A much less la-di-da memory—but one that has faded into a certain folklore about the house—is the day a man named André Dallaire somehow breached security, and got himself on the grounds, in 1995, attempting an assassination on then-Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien.
Wandering around the house for about 20 minutes, with a knife, while Chretien slept, Dallaire was eventually confronted by the Prime Minister’s wife, Aline.
Famously, she retreated to the bedroom, and woke her husband, who then—in the most Canadian part of this tale—grabbed a 15-inch Inuit stone carving of a loon to protect themselves.
The trespasser was soon apprehended by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but, for years afterwards, the leader praised his wife for both her sangfroid, and for saving his life.
Fast-forward 20 years: $10 million is the estimated cost of the renovation to the official residence, as per a report filed by the National Capital Commission, in 2011.
To what extent there is enough goodwill from Canadians—not to mention from Trudeau Jr.’s political foes—to let the re-do happen, remains to be seen. For the time being, it seems, he’s content to bunk down the street.