24 Sussex: Save the history behind those walls

For many, the best solution to the 24 Sussex problem is simply to tear it down. But as historian Arthur Milnes argues, we have much more to lose than just bricks and mortar

24 Sussex’s entrance. Photo: Courtesy of National Capital Commission

Over the years, whenever the issue of the future of 24 Sussex Drive is raised, I quietly think of one name and one name only. And the man I think of isn’t even Canadian. Yet I know exactly what he’d do, faced with a crumbling national institution that belongs to no single prime minister or party but instead belongs to us all as Canadians.

He was an American, a farmer from Missouri who by happenstance, hard work, and more than a little luck became president of the United States. Today, decades after he left office with his popularity in the doldrums, historians have concluded for the most part that when it mattered, Harry Truman got the big decisions right.

And one of those decisions was to defy public opinion, large swaths of media opinion, and hostility from Congress to repair and upgrade a building — the White House — that to him was a shrine to America’s proud history.

“History for Truman,” wrote his biographer, David McCullough, “was never just something in a book, but part of life, and of interest primarily because it had to do with people. Often when he spoke of Andrew Jackson or John Quincy Adams, it was as if he were talking about someone he knew.”

And so President Truman moved out of the crumbling White House for approximately three years and allowed that famous building, the residence of the president, to be properly restored.

Americans, most particularly their presidents, have been thanking Truman ever since. And the pious editorialists and opposition politicians who opposed this renovation? Their names have been lost to history while Truman’s lives on.

So today, as Ottawa considers the future of 24 Sussex Drive, Truman’s steadfast example should be considered and emulated here.

The many faces of 24 Sussex. Originally a neo-Gothic design, the house’s chateauesque features, including a turret, were added in the Edwardian era. Photo courtesy of National Capital Commission

Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent was the first prime minister of Canada to live at the home on Sussex above the Ottawa River. Since then, nine other prime ministers have earned the right to use 24 Sussex Drive as their home.

Think of it — for almost 70 years of Canada’s history, that address has been our leader’s home. Whenever I see the house as I drive by or on the few occasions I have been there, I don’t think of the costs of renovation or the very Canadian-like columns that will dismissively greet a renovation; I think of the history that went on behind those walls.

I picture two very different men, from different parties, who one night in the early 1980s put politics aside to strengthen our country. It was at that home that Pierre Trudeau and William Davis met,
as Canadians, to make an agreement that bequeathed the country a Charter of Rights. In the same vein, I picture Mr. Diefenbaker at work in his study there, alone, crafting the Bill of Rights more than 20 years earlier.

The Edwardian-era design of the home. Photo courtesy: National Capital Commission

I also picture a day in 1990 when Canada’s Prime Minister Brian Mulroney spoke to the newly free Nelson Mandela by phone from that house. I think of Pearson in that home, cajoling and convincing reluctant ministers and MPs to join him on the path to medicare. Later, I can imagine Mr. Harper carefully crafting his historic apology to Indigenous peoples in the same study where Mr. St. Laurent himself might have worked so long ago. Then there is Mr. Chrétien, who was meeting with a provincial premier at 24 Sussex on a September morning in 2001 when the world changed forever.

All these thoughts of mine are compounded each time I’m in Ottawa as I pass by another stately home where a prime minister once lived. Earnscliffe. The home of Canada’s first and founding Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald.

I am filled with a great sadness each time I go by Earnscliffe or visit there. In that building, the Father of Confederation lived and died, passing away there in 1891 while still prime minister.

In many countries, Earnscliffe would be a shrine, probably still the official residence of Canada’s prime ministers. But what did Canadians allow to happen? We sold our first prime minister’s house, and it is now foreign soil as the home of the British High Commissioner to Canada. There was even a public lawn sale where our first prime minister’s possessions were sold like damaged goods at a thrift shop.

And now some suggest we should do the same to 24 Sussex Drive, just pitch it — and our history — away when history becomes inconvenient or expensive.

This approach is very Canadian.

It is also so very sad.

The Edwardian-era design was dramatically changed after it was expropriated by the government in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of National Capital Commission

President Truman and his family moved back into the White House in March of 1952. A few weeks later he took his entire nation on a televised tour of America’s newly renovated home. History records that 30 million Americans watched this tour of their house.

In writing of Truman’s tour, Jack Gould of the New York Times summed up what mattered most.

“The president was an inexhaustible source of information. He explained the decor and furnishings and offered a host of anecdotes on former occupants of the White House,” Gould wrote. “Yet through his narratives there always ran an underlying note of deeply sincere and moving awe for the historic continuity of the presidency.”

Take a drive by Earnscliffe today. Go by the now empty 24 Sussex. Tell me, then, that Canadians don’t need more of what Gould wrote about regarding our history and national institutions in the capital.

Tell me we don’t need our own Harry Truman.

Arthur Milnes, a Fellow of the Queen’s School of Policy Studies, served proudly as a speechwriter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Before that he was researcher on the Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney’s bestselling Memoirs and has edited or co-edited books about past prime ministers Sir John A. Macdonald, Arthur Meighen, R.B. Bennett, and John N. Turner and U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. His latest book, Canada Always: The Speeches of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, will be published by McClelland and Stewart later this year.