Viewpoint: Parliament Hill renovations don’t justify hefty price tag

Over the last few years, the presence of cranes and construction on Parliament Hill has become so normal as to be an afterthought, the noise just part of the background, like protesters or green buses.

We won’t see them gone for the next two decades, since the cranes and tarps are part of a massive restoration project to rehabilitate the entire parliamentary precinct. 

This renovation has been approved for $3 billion of government spending. So far, they’ve spent over half that amount.

In late March, a representative for Public Works and Government Services Canada testified before a parliamentary committee to give the House an update on the renovations. She was pleased to report they were “on time and on budget,” if that expression means anything when discussing a project that will take decades and cost billions of dollars.

But MPs from all parties had questions about the nature and expense of the project. Ordinary citizens should pause and ask some of their own. 

There’s no question that upgrades to the buildings are needed. After all, renovations began after pieces literally started falling off the West Block. 

According to the committee testimony, without extensive rehabilitation, all the buildings in the precinct would be unsafe for use in a matter of years, which would embarrass any nation. But as Canadians, we need to keep an eye on where this money is going and what is being done on the Hill.

Some of the planned changes are unquestionably beneficial, such as the addition of more working spaces in all buildings. Some are frankly bizarre (a glass dome over the interim House of Commons chamber? Why? And millions of dollars just for this, when the West Block chamber is only temporary to begin with?) And some are troubling, such as the addition of a new Visitor’s Welcome Centre, which was touted as a great benefit because of the ability for enhanced security screening.

As one MP pointed out, the construction of a new centre is unquestionably better than a tent on the grass to welcome tourists in summer, the current status quo. But so quickly conflating welcoming and security is troubling at best and cynical at worst. We should be wary of the potential to turn Parliament into a fortress.

The committee testimony made it clear that Public Works is in charge of the renovation, but not the security priorities, which can change as requirements dictate. One must assume they changed in the aftermath of the shooting last October, perhaps prudently. But let’s not let that go unnoticed or unquestioned.

Another troubling issue is that the renovations are trying to balance the tension between heritage and modernization, but according to testimony, some sacrifices might have to be made. Reasonable enough: we want a modern parliamentary precinct, after all.

But these buildings are unique in Canadian history. 

 It is our responsibility as citizens to hold bureaucrats accountable for any changes they make for the sake of change, and to preserve as much of our history as we can.

Because, as many MPs said during the testimony, Parliament belongs to all Canadians. We want to be able to be proud of it.