Canada says taking legal action after Uganda's diplomatic residence is 'illegally' demolished

Canada says taking legal action after Uganda's diplomatic residence is 'illegally' demolished
The building that has been demolished to pave way for a new structure.

The Ugandan High Commission has for years wanted to demolish and construct a new home on the two-storey red brick building on Cobourg Street that it used from 1985 until 2014, when it was declared unsafe, but authorities in Ottawa city forbid the demolition of the consulate building in Sandy Hill

The Uganda High Commission in Canada has admitted it facilitated the demolition of its uninhabited official residence without a permit, an action authorities in Ottawa have taken legal action against, citing violation under the Ontario Heritage Act and Ontario Build Code Act.

The legal action is being taken against the agent contracted by the Ugandan government, Elite Dream Construction of Toronto, and its director Jobson Easow.

The Ugandan Mission is protected under diplomatic protocol.

In a document seen by this reporter, Kyle Brydges, the Ottawa provincial offences officer, told the Ontario Court of Justice that the two respondents had demolished a building without first obtaining a permit from the chief building official contrary the Building Code Act, 1992.

The City of Ottawa, in a 31-page report to the Built Heritage Committee seen by this publication, said it considers such contraventions to be "serious matters" – because the stucco house was considered a heritage-protected home.

"The City has received a letter from the Uganda High Commissioner acknowledging that the demolition was not permitted and has committed to working with City staff to move towards compliance," says the report submitted on February 1 by Court Curry, manager of heritage and urban design services.

The Nile Post could not readily access the concession letter Ottawa authorities said the Ugandan High Commission had sent, but the report said "the owner recognizes the gravity of the situation".

What is left of the official residence of the Ugandan High Commission in Canada after its demolition

Efforts to get a comment from the Ugandan High Commissioner to Canada, Joy Ruth Acheng, were futile at the time of filing this article but Margaret Awino Kafeero, the head of public diplomacy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the process of getting the permits required to repair the building took years because of the strict and complex heritage preservation laws in Canada.

"We owned the property but it was in dire need of repair and was uninhabited," she said, adding that the delays to get the permit exacerbated the damage that initially necessitated the repairs.

The state of Ugandan high commission properties came into the spotlight in the Auditor General's 2023 report, with another two-storeyed red brick building located on Cobourg Street in a "very sorry state" and one "a number of the Mission's assets are obsolete and require disposal."

In 2018, Acheng was outraged over a city committee's decision to forbid the demolition of a former consulate building in Sandy Hill that was once home to Canadian Prime Minsiter Lester B. Pearson.

"We are so disappointed by the decision made by the committee, and that ... does not enhance [a] good bilateral relationship between Uganda and Canada," Acheng was quoted by CBC as saying.

At the time, the Canadian broadcaster reported that the building has been sitting in an increasingly dilapidated state ever since, with serious foundation problems and mould resulting from water damage.

"It has cracks from the foundation up to the roof," Acheng said of the building that was used as that country's high commission to Canada from 1985 until 2014, when it was declared unsafe.

The government was seeking to demolish the building and build a new high commission in its place, but Ottawa's built heritage sub-committee ignored the advice of both the city's own professional heritage planners and a third-party engineering firm, who agreed the building is in such bad shape repair would not help much.

"The committee members were very unfair not to consider the technical report," Acheng said.

But Foreign Affairs spokesperson Kafeero said at some point the integrity of some of the walls was so compromised and it made more financial sense to demolish than to repair.

"But as you can appreciate, built heritage is not about finance so a back and forth ensued with the local council.

An architect's rendering of the front of the new building the Ugandan government wants to construct.

Uganda style

Authorities in Ottawa say the Uganda High Commission of its agent carried out the demolition of the building constructed in 1956 clandestinely between October and December.

In the three months, Elite Dream Construction Corporation ignored several orders and went beyond permits and directives it had been given on how to proceed.

"In September 2020, City Council approved an application to permit the alteration of, and addition to the previous house in order allow it to function more appropriately for the Ugandan High Commission," the report says.

On the morning of October 23, however, building code services received a complaint that it was being demolished. An inspector found that the demolition work was limited to the front of the garage, which was allowed under the permit.

Two days later, reported that Norman Allen, the city's deputy chief building, returned to find the roof and second floor walls demolished and debris placed on the ground floor.

Currently, only a few ground floor walls remain standing at the site.

An architect's rendering of the back of the new building the Ugandan government wants to construct.

Susan Peterson, of the Rockcliffe Park Residents Association, said the destruction of the building was appalling, devastating and almost unprecedented.

"We were taken by total surprise and really quite devastated," Peterson, who chairs the association's heritage outreach committee, told CBC.

"Most embassies do a spectacular job of helping Ottawa, the capital of Canada, care for its heritage. But there are a few exceptions, and this is one big exception," she added.

Kafeero noted that the contractor has followed the recommendation to apply for a demolition permit.

The City indeed recommended approval of an application for new construction at the site, saying the building had already been demolished without the appropriate approvals in place.

"This application was submitted as the owner wishes to continue with construction, using the previously-approved design," the committee said.

The Ugandan government is understood to be engaging Global Affairs Canada, the the department that manages Canada's diplomatic and consular relations, to pick up the debris left behind by the unapproved demolition.

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