Reign in the NCC to save Canada’s built heritage

Above: Canada's six official residences are: (Clockwise from top left) Rideau Hall (Home and workplace of the governor general of Canada), 24 Sussex Drive, (Home of the prime minister of Canada), Harrington Lake (Country residence of the prime minister of Canada), Stornoway (Home of the leader of the Opposition), The Farm (Home of the speaker of the House of Commons), 7 Rideau Gate (Guest house for official guests of the Canadian government).

The perennial debate about how to maintain Canada’s official residences (and there are only six of the bloody things!) has taken some shocking, silly and simply stupid turns this year.

And while the likes of The Sun will never be disabused of their instance on publishing tall-poppy diatribes pandering to the lowest common denominator, it occurs to me that the way the National Capital Commission (NCC) is both established and does business makes them a fixable part of the problem.

Now, I’ve railed against the NCC for years but never really offered any concrete suggestions on how to fix it. Until now.

The single biggest problem with the NCC is that it operates as a law unto itself. With direct accountability to the residents of the NCR or their elected officials, NCC decisions often meet with surprise – if not outright rage – from residents.

A secondary problem with the NCC (and the same can be of all government contracts to varying degrees) is that the dollar figures involved almost always seem ludicrous.

The renovations to the PM’s cottage at Harrington Lake this past summer seem a case in point: $8.6m to renovate a cottage is a tough pill to swallow for most Canadians. The NCC, however, argued that it was totally reasonable because they had a report saying the place needed $17m in work.

Not sure how that makes it better? Join the club.

But that pales when compared to the costs associated with the PM’s main residence: 24 Sussex Drive.

There the NCC estimate costs to repair the residence and update it to proper, modern security, HVAC and other technology standards at between $34m and $567m.

Five hundred and sixty-seven million dollars!?! Utter insanity! Frankly, a $34m renovation to what is really an old lumber barren’s house with little intrinsic historic value beyond its address isn’t exactly a bargain.

But build/renovate decisions aside, with numbers like these it’s little wonder that politicians of all stripes run for the (Gatineau) hills when the topic of NCC renovations to an official residence come up!

But as a result, these buildings that belong to all Canadians and should be used as symbols of our nation, our democracy and our outsized clout on the world stage sit crumbling. No one has lived at 24 Sussex since the Harper family left in 2015.

Can you imagine the White House being allowed to crumble? Or the Élysée Palace with tape around the windows? Or the Forbidden City with a leaking roof? Let alone Buck House without working HVAC!

No, it’s parochial, petty, pathetic and a national disgrace – or at least it should be.

So while The Sun and their ilk will always complain about every dollar spent on the comfort of an elected official, I think there are some steps that could be taken to both remove the politics from the NCC process while simultaneously giving the politicians some measure of control:

Step 1: a committee! How much more Ottawa could you get?! But seriously, a Joint Committee of Parliament responsible for overseeing (i.e., running) the NCC.

Make it five members:

– the minister responsible for the NCR;

– an MP appointed by the Leader of the Oppostion;

– an MP appointed by the Leader of the third party; and

– two Senators.

The necessary legislation would be amended so that the Chair of the NCC serves at the pleasure of this Joint Committee for Oversight of the NCC (JCONCC) (likely the minister acting on the advice of, or some such legal nicety).

The Joint Committee will also be required to approve all capital expenditures (could be in an annual budget, could be project specific) proposed by the NCC. As part of that approval, the Joint Committee requires three quotes from three pre-approved contractors. One of those can be Public Works, but the other two must be private companies.

The lowest cost bidder need not necessarily win: If the NCC believes that only Public Works and its exorbitant cost structures can safely deliver the required work, then they need to convince Joint Committee that’s the case and why.

The Joint Committee would also be wise to regularly engage the minister’s provincial counterparts from both Ontario and Quebec as well as the mayors of Ottawa and Gatineau.

Look, it’s not a perfect solution. So long as Canadians want to look at these buildings with petty, parochial, provincial, petulant, partisan or pissy eyes, there will be no perfect solution.

But something has to change and these would be simple, easily implemented changes that would provide both greater accountability from the NCC and greater political cover for the government of the day and whatever comes after it.

Doing nothing is no longer an option and this would definitely be something.

Jamie Carroll is a former National Director of the Libéral Party of Canada and has personally frozen his ass off at 24 Sussex as well as sat sweltering at Stornoway on non-consecutive occasions.