At 130 years old, Ontario’s legislature is showing its age.
There are lead pipes and asbestos running through the walls, mountains of old cables and wires stacked on top of new ones, an inefficient steam heating system with parts that frequently fail and fire safety systems in need of upgrading.
The “hazardous and severely deficient” infrastructure has members and officials of the legislature eyeing a full decommissioning of the building for large-scale renovations and moving the business of governing elsewhere for about eight years.
That’s similar to the project underway in Parliament’s Centre Block in Ottawa, and members of an Ontario legislative committee were set to travel to that city on Thursday to hear any lessons learned or best practices from officials there.
A report is underway to determine exactly what work is needed, but it is clear it will not come cheap, said Legislative Affairs Minister Paul Calandra.
“It’s certainly not going to cost less than a billion dollars,” he said in an interview.
The vast scale of repairs and upgrades needed in the stately old legislature known as Queen’s Park has been discussed on an increasingly urgent basis for the past several decades, with options on the table such as shutting it down block by block for the construction work.
That no longer seems like an option, Calandra said.
“We will need to decamp and (have) a full restoration happen, and that just can’t happen in a piecemeal way and still have a functioning assembly at the same time, given the scale of what has to happen here,” he said.
Speaker Ted Arnott said moving the assembly out of the building will end up being less disruptive and less expensive than doing it bit by bit.
“The longer we delay, the more likely it is that there’s going to be, I would say, a catastrophic failure of one of our systems, whether it’s plumbing or electrical, or ventilation,” he said in an interview.
“We can’t just let the building crumble around us.”
Calandra is involved in scouting a new location for the assembly and hopes that when the next provincial parliament convenes after the 2026 election, it will be in a different –relatively close – spot.
“There is a recognition that four or five, maybe maximum six years, frankly … that’s when we basically hit the end of the lifespan of the building, and it starts becoming very, very challenging to maintain it,” Calandra said.
“It’s going to be sooner rather than later.”
The legislature has been getting by with repairs so far, but a report from more than 10 years ago concluded that a “full replacement of all major systems” is needed, including better fire protection, as well as electrical, IT, plumbing, and heating and cooling systems.
“Upgrades of this scale and complexity are further complicated by designated substances, which are present throughout the building, including asbestos, lead and PCBs,” Jelena Bajcetic, director of precinct properties, told the legislative committee studying the issue during a hearing in November.
“These issues present significant challenges for us in staying ahead of the maintenance curve … As we continue to maintain the systems, it doesn’t change the fact that the infrastructure as a whole is both hazardous and severely deficient.”
The standing committee on procedure and house affairs is set to hear Thursday from the deputy clerk of administration, chief information officer and director of real property services for the House of Commons.
Jennifer French, the New Democrat who is the chair of the committee, said she is hoping to hear from the federal officials what the province will need to keep in mind as it embarks on this project and how best to make these big decisions.
“This is not uncharted territory, but it is new for Queen’s Park,” she said in an interview. “Obviously, it’s a building that is pretty important to a lot of folks, and we want to make sure that it can serve Ontarians going forward.”
The work that needs to be done will not benefit the current crop of politicians, but it is for parliaments of the future, said deputy clerk Trevor Day. That is why it is important to get all parties on board, he told the committee in November.
“We need it to be bigger than the current government,” he said.
“It’s going to take a while for this to take place. It’s going to cost a lot of money. There very well may be times when the public is not happy with how that money is being spent. I see a benefit to it for the people of Ontario, but it’s not tangible … We want to prove to you that it’s needed and we want to prove to you that it’s worth the money.”