A Christmas truce: The Harpers and media stop feuding for one night

A party at 24 Sussex gives reporters a look at Canada's most famous address

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Journalists rarely get to see the inside of 24 Sussex Dr. and, truth be told, there isn't all that much to see.

Canada's most famous address is hardly a mansion by the standards of Westmount or Rosedale, more like a gracious old home, and a rather run-down one. The downstairs has a front hall, living room and dining room, study, sunroom and kitchen.

The house, built by a lumber baron in the 1860s, and acquired by the government as the prime minister's official residence in the 1950s, isn't in great shape and hasn't been for many years.

As long ago as 1984, the public- works department spent nearly $1 million fixing the roof and wiring. The job took several months over an election campaign and subsequent change of government. It was a full two months after the election before Brian Mulroney and his family could even move in (they had been living at the Speaker's residence, known as the Farm, on the old Mackenzie King estate at Kingsmere in the Gatineau). When Mulroney was presented with the bill, he was so shocked he paid $200,000 of it and he still got killed in stories based on access to information requests, because the repairs were completed on his watch. There were drive-by shootings about the size of his shoe closets being big enough for 84 pairs of Guccis.

Understandably, all his successors have been reluctant to spend a dime on the place. Jean and Aline Chrétien furnished 24 Sussex out of government stock. To this day, there isn't central air-conditioning in the house. Sheila Martin hated the place, noting it was drafty in winter and sweltering in summer. She much preferred life down on the Martin's farm at Iron Hill in the Eastern Townships, where there was no access to information.

When the Harpers moved in last year, Stephen Harper noted, "it's the nicest public housing I'll ever live in." And he hasn't spent anything on it. The most important public house in Canada still doesn't have access for the handicapped at the front door.

Last year, the Harpers became the first occupants of 24 Sussex in many years to invite the press for a Christmas cocktail. They'd done so in opposition at Stornoway, and they figured, they weren't going to change. Seeing the inside of the house for the first time, many reporters were underwhelmed.

"It's actually quite run down," said a colleague from the Ottawa Citizen.

"And who's to blame for that?" I asked. "We are - the media. And this is where we invite the queen and the president of the United States for lunch."

There weren't even any works of Canadian art, say, by Suzor-Côté or Lemieux, on the walls.

In the last year, Laureen Harper has done a lot to improve the appearance of the place, hanging some paintings that evoke the big sky of her native Alberta. For her second round of Christmas parties at Sussex, she's put a gingerbread replica of the house in the sunroom. And for Monday night's press party, she had the ground floor cleared of furniture, while the RCMP asked her guests to check their guns at the door and their coats in the basement. A member of the RCMP detail stood watchfully at the door of the PM's study.

She worked the living room, while he worked the dining room. Well, he stood in the dining room, and a circle of guests gathered around him.

As a couple, they couldn't be more different. She is as outgoing as he is reserved, as vivacious as he is fundamentally shy. She's more comfortable in jeans, but also looks great in the black- and-grey chiffon dress she was wearing Monday night. He was born to wear a blue suit. She likes to talk about her kids, her friends, her motorcycle and snowshoeing at Harrington Lake. He likes to talk about politics and hockey.

In the circle around him on Monday night, he was apparently handicapping the U.S. presidential primaries, which begin next month and could be all over a month later on Super Tuesday.

There was a third luminary in the house, CTV news anchor Lloyd Robertson, who had taken over the front hall just by standing there with the network's Ottawa bureau chief, Bob Fife. Robertson has become Canada's Walter Cronkite, everyone's favourite uncle. There isn't a nicer person in our business.

Then a nice thing happened. Harper posed in front of the family Christmas tree with Robertson, Fife, Craig Oliver and the entire CTV bureau, including producers known as "the girls."

A Christmas truce.

 
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