She’ll be the mayor of Mississauga until she’s dead. Or possibly longer
Kelly Patrick, National Post
Published: Saturday, April 08, 2006
If ever there was a crowd Hazel McCallion couldn’t work, you’d think this would be it.
Mississauga’s 85-year-old mayor is about to address a horde of students some 70 years her junior at Lincoln M. Alexander Secondary School’s first annual Holi festival, a Hindu celebration of spring. Her audience is filled with brown-skinned boys in street clothes and girls in vividly coloured saris, all busy ignoring the other presenters.
If her fuschia blouse didn’t match a few of the saris, McCallion would be utterly out of place. As it is, she looks like a little old lady who wandered into the wrong event, but apparently got the memo about the evening’s colour scheme.
Then she takes the mic. She’s louder than the previous speakers by several decibels and, impressively, knows exactly how to cut through the kids’ chatter. “You know, I just got back from India,” she says, referring to a February trip she took to the subcontinent to drum up business for Mississauga and the GTA.
At the word India, the mainly Hindu crowd whoops and claps like a pack of concert-goers who’ve just heard the headliner mention a local watering hole. McCallion drops the name of another Indian city, then another. Each time, the students reward her with a fresh eruption of cheers.
She’s working the crowd like the very old pro that she is.
After more than 27 years at Mississauga’s helm and more than four decades in local politics, the woman Mississaugans call Hurricane Hazel still has the common touch, even with tough-to-please teenagers.
That common touch, combined with a spine of steel and the stamina of a 20-year-old, has made nearly every year of McCallion’s career fascinating to watch.
But this year has been particularly compelling.
Besides embarking on her Indian adventure, in the last 12 months McCallion has been named to the Order of Canada, voted the planet’s second-best mayor, travelled to Tanzania with her Hazel’s Hope charity and announced that, yes, she will stand in November for an 11th consecutive term.
She won’t come right out and say it, but everyone in the city knows it: McCallion will be mayor of Mississauga until she’s bedridden or dead.
Figuring out why she sticks with it — and why her constituents keep returning her to office with more than 90% of the vote, victories that would make a dictator envious — is part of what makes McCallion the GTA’s most compelling politician of 2006.
To her, the reason she keeps running is simple.
“I enjoy it. I get up in the morning and I’m anxious to get going,” McCallion said during an interview at the two-storey red brick Mississsauga home she shared with husband Sam until his death in 1997.
However, talking to McCallion, her eldest son, friends and observers, it’s clear the mayor’s work is about much more than enjoyment or keeping busy in her eighth decade.
In the same way she embodies the city she’s led for 28 of the 32 years it has existed, the city embodies her. Running it is the source of her good health and sharp mind. It’s her salve for life’s wounds.
When McCallion lost Sam, her husband of nearly 46 years and father of her three children, to pneumonia following a battle with Alzheimer’s, it was the pile of work waiting for her at City Hall that helped her get through it.
“I think the best thing I say to people is to have something to do to keep you occupied,” she said at her house, dog Hurricane lying at her side. “To sit around and grieve about it doesn’t do much good. But you have to have a challenge and I had to get back to work. There were items that had to be dealt with at the city and I think that helped considerably.”
Even at home, McCallion’s work is everywhere.
Piles of file folders cover the kitchen table. Bobble-head dolls of McCallion in various sports uniforms sit on the counter. Photos of her at events — but also with her children Peter, Linda and Paul and granddaughter Erika — cover the fridge door. Outside, her Christmas lights have yet to be taken down.
“Personally,” said Ron Lenyk, the long-time publisher of the Mississauga News, “I think if she had to retire it would be so hard on her. It would be like losing a loved one.”
McCallion’s love affair with politics began in the mid-1960s in Streetsville, a village that a decade later joined with several others to form the City of Mississauga. But her preparation for politics began much earlier.
Born Feb. 14, 1921, in Port Daniel, a farm and fishing town on Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula, Hazel Journeaux was the youngest of five kids. As a child, she picked up her business acumen working in the little grocery shop her father, Herbert, ran for the fishermen whose catches fed his fish processing plant.
McCallion sharpened her business skills at secretarial school in Montreal, then with a job at the Canadian arm of M.W. Kellogg, a New York-based engineering and construction company.
When the firm won the contract to build the world’s first synthetic rubber plant in Sarnia, McCallion moved to Toronto to help set up the office.
“She did a helluva good job,” said Hank Wurdermann, the general manager who brought her to Toronto, in a documentary produced for McCallion’s 80th birthday.
“I sent her down with these papers and she had to see the chap to whom I reported in the U.S. company. And he called me right after she left his office and said ‘Where the hell did you find her? She thinks like a man.’ ”
In 1951, she married Sam McCallion, whom she’d met in an Anglican youth organization.
The couple moved to Streetsville. In 1967, the no-nonsense businesswoman decided to step down from M.W. Kellogg to throw herself into full-time politics in the town, where she was appointed deputy reeve in 1968, then reeve and elected mayor in 1970.
Although McCallion fought desperately to keep Streetsville out of the Region of Peel and the City of Mississauga, she joined those she couldn’t beat when she was elected to the first councils of Mississauga and Peel Region in 1974.
Four years later, at the age of 57, she ran for the city’s top job. “At the time, I remember her saying she only had the wives of important people supporting her,” said Lenyk.
McCallion’s eldest son, Peter, now 53, remembers her support as more widespread. At least if you judged by residents’ lawns.
“It was a good fight, don’t get me wrong. I’m going by number of signs — that doesn’t necessarily win an election of course — but we definitely had the signs,” he said.
Still, even after McCallion became Mississauga’s first female mayor, there was little indication she’d be in the office until the 21st century, said Ron Duquette, a community advocate and filmmaker about to start work on a book about the mayor’s life.
When she first got elected on council in Mississauga and even her first term as mayor, I don’t think a lot of people thought she’d last,” he said.
That changed with an explosion that rocked the city Nov. 10, 1979. A freight train hauling chlorine gas derailed, spewing toxins into the air and prompting Mississauga to evacuate more than 220,000 residents.
McCallion took charge. She rushed from meetings to press conferences, spraining an ankle along the way.
For the rest of the crisis, the international media watched as Mississauga’s barely five-foot-tall lady mayor hobbled about on crutches, outworking sturdy-ankled men half her age.
“She was a goddess from there on in,” said Lenyk. “Even people who drank beer at the bar thought of her as their general.”
The stamina McCallion displayed after the derailment has been a hallmark of her career.
On the day of the Holi festival at Lincoln M. Alexander last month, for example, she had a full day of meetings, a 4:30 p.m. interview, a 7 p.m. speech at the festival and her 9 p.m. cable call-in show on Rogers TV to host.
On that night’s Mayor’s Hour, McCallion was thumb-tack sharp.
Ensconced at a table, her small body dwarfed by the massive TV screen displaying the show’s title, she took call after call about the most mundane of local issues.
“Good evening, you’re on the air. Go ahead,” she said, pushing the button on a table-top phone and fiddling with an earpiece that wouldn’t stay put.
The callers mainly shared personal gripes — a streetlight that kept burning out, tickets for a woman who parked illegally on the bottom half of her driveway — but even when the queries turned to larger issues, McCallion’s frankness and encyclopedic memory didn’t disappoint. Asked about a possible subway extension into Mississauga, she offered a five-minute briefing on the city’s other rapid transit plans, but didn’t mince words about a subway: It was too expensive to ever happen.
She came off the air at 10 p.m.; she was scheduled to fly to Ottawa the next day at dawn.
Jim Murray, a senior vice-president at a Mississauga commercial real estate firm and an old friend, recalled with a chuckle the mayor’s high energy on a Caribbean cruise in August, 2004.
“She loves to dance and we were in the disco until 2 a.m.,” he said. “My wife and I walked her to her room and the next morning we were feeling quite good that we were up and about to have breakfast at 8:45 a.m.”
That is, until he found out McCallion had already walked two miles of the ship’s jogging track, swam laps in the pool and eaten breakfast.
Aside from complete devotion to the job, McCallion has a handful of cardinal rules for running a well-oiled city. Use your common sense. Run the city like a business. Do your homework.
Her philosophy seems to be working.
Mississauga is debt-free. Its citizens enjoyed 12 years without a property tax hike from 1990 to 2001 (although this year, Mississauga had one of the largest property tax hikes in the region, at 5.9% for the city’s portion, largely because of increases in wages, utility and winter road repair costs). Her council is cohesive. She built the Living Arts Centre, the Hershey Centre, Mississauga’s controversial City Hall.
Without knocking on doors or pounding signs into lawns, McCallion, who earned $120, 319 in 2005, has romped to election win after election win. In the last three municipal contests, in 2003, 2000 and 1997, she garnered 91.6%, 92.1% and 94.3% of the votes, respectively.
In the last election, she didn’t file a single expense or receive a cent in donations, according to city staff.
All this is not to say McCallion’s occasionally abrasive style hasn’t won her enemies.
Although her tiny frame, white hair and creased skin make her look like a gentle grandmother, when she opens her mouth it’s clear McCallion is hard-edged, and, frankly, intimidating.
“I am tough,” she said, when asked about her clashes with rivals. “You have to be in municipal politics.”
Those who have been on the opposite sides of fights with McCallion, however, now speak about the battles with respect and a tinge of awe.
According to Lenyk, the Mississauga News publisher, when a rumour spread that he was considering running against her, she refused to talk to him for three months.
“I was the enemy for a while,” he said with a laugh.
Even after McCallion launched her recent protracted fight to pull Mississauga out of the Region of Peel (she eventually settled for two extra seats on Region of Peel Council, which also includes representatives from Brampton and Caledon) regional chair Emil Kolb won’t utter an unkind word about her style.
“I think once the issue has been dealt with she has always been herself and we deal with the next issues that come along,” he said. “I think she’s been very professional.”
Professional, but not perfect.
As Mississauga exploded from a city of just under 300,000 when she was elected to Canada’s sixth largest city with more than 700,000 residents today, it became enveloped in expensive-to-service urban sprawl.
McCallion is now scrambling to correct the problem with a focus on smart growth and public transit. She chaired the Central Ontario Smart Growth Panel, which produced a final report in April, 2003.
In 2001, she landed in hot water over comments about immigrants and refugees in an interview with National Post columnist Diane Francis.
“If you go to the Credit Valley Hospital the emergency is loaded with people in their native costumes,” she was quoted as saying. “A couple will come here as immigrants and each bring their parents. Now you have four people who never contributed a nickel toward our medical system using it at an age when they will cost everyone a great deal of money.”
Although McCallion insisted her words had been taken out of context, the comments prompted the city’s South Asian community — which took the costumes remark as a personal jab — to lead two angry protests complete with hecklers carrying placards reading “We don’t want a racist mayor.” (Francis and the Post stood by the story.)
McCallion refused to apologize, insisting she had done nothing wrong, but said she “regretted” it if anyone was hurt by the column.
The mayor was also found guilty of violating the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act in the early 1980s for taking part in a council discussion about releasing 3,800 acres of land for development. The parcels included a five-acre plot she and Sam owned in the East Credit area.
Although McCallion refrained from voting on the part of the resolution that dealt specifically with her land, she did not excuse herself from the debate leading up to the vote — a move a County Court judge in July, 1982, deemed a “bona fide error of judgment.”
Despite calls for McCallion’s head from John Graham, the former Streetsville mayor and political foe who took the case to court, Judge Ernest West refused to toss her out of office, saying she did not gain financially from releasing the land and had previously declared her conflict. The Ontario Court of Appeal later upheld the finding.
Still, after 40-plus years in local politics, McCallion’s scandal sheet is remarkably short.
And those who love her are eager to say why.
“Oh, she’s my hero,” enthused her friend Maggie Bras, before fishing a pile of yellowed newspaper clippings about McCallion from beneath the bed of her country home.
Bras, who has known McCallion since her first mayoral campaign, praised her devotion to her family and her loyalty as a regular old girlfriend.
“She’s a good friend. You know how you just sit and chat with a girlfriend and you’re able to unload, you’re able to cry if you want, well, Hazel doesn’t cry, Hazel does vent and she knows it won’t go past me,” said Bras.
“That’s the personal side of Hazel that I treasure.”
Fran Rider, the executive director of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association, positively gushed about the work McCallion — herself a former semi-pro centrewoman for the Kik Cola team in Montreal — has done promoting women’s hockey and helping it win a spot in the Olympics.
In 1987, Mississauga hosted the ground-breaking women’s World Hockey Invitational Tournament, featuring teams from Japan, Switzerland, Holland, Sweden, the United States and Canada.
“The event was a challenge because three months before the tournament we had teams if we had money, we had money if we had teams and the only thing we really had for sure was Hazel McCallion. And that was enough,” Rider said.
Rider said McCallion convinced corporate sponsors to donate money for the tournament and urged the media to cover it; its success prompted the International Ice Hockey Federation to grant the sport a sanctioned world championship in 1990.
Women’s hockey was accepted as an Olympic sport two years later, Rider said, but not picked up by a host city until the 1998 games in Nagano, Japan.
“The women’s hockey community calls her our mayor,” Rider said of McCallion, adding the mayor can still lift a puck and land it in the top corner of the net. “Mississauga has to share her with the world of women’s hockey.”
McCallion says her health is “100%,” but she is 85 years old, and others are starting to position themselves as her potential successor.
Their wait may be a long one.
“You know what really pisses me off?” said Lenyk. “When people our age [he’s 59] say she must be losing it. I say, ‘Have you dealt with her?’ She hasn’t lost a step.”
And, he added, “I really believe in my heart she’ll be mayor until she’s 100.”
THE RUNNERS-UP: LIBERAL LEADERSHIP CONTENDERS:
Like nowhere else in the nation, Toronto remained Liberal red after January’s election, so it’s no surprise the race will probably consist of candidates from the Big Smoke: little-known lawyer Martha Hall Findley; veteran MP John Godfrey; former provincial education minister Gerard Kennedy; Harvard intellectual/rookie MP Michael Ignatieff; former hockey great/sophomore MP Ken Dryden; former NDP premier Bob Rae (although not Belinda Stronach). The city, which hasn’t been home to a prime minister in generations, has replaced Montreal as the intellectual home of the Natural Governing Party, and while lacking a superstar candidate offers some potentially compelling hopefuls.
THE RUNNERS-UP: GARTH TURNER:
This Maverick Tory backbencher from Halton returned to elected politics in the Jan. 23 election, more than 12 years after serving as an MP (and briefly a Cabinet minister) under prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell. Before the new Parliament began its new session, he publicly criticized Stephen Harper for recruiting former Liberal minister David Emerson to the government benches. Turner also spoke out against the Conservatives’ child care plan, claiming that after surveying 11,000 Canadians he felt a tax break to single-income families would be preferable to the Tories’ planned $1,200 per child per year allowance. A fun one to watch.
THE RUNNERS-UP: ROB FORD:
On a city council that leans decidedly to the left, the councillor for Etobicoke North is the bean counter who speaks up every time his colleagues try to pry an extra penny out of taxpayers’ wallets. Take the debate about the councillors’ expenses last month. Ford accused the “so-called leaders of the city” of “spending like drunken sailors.” As he fought the city’s ”harm-reduction” drug strategy last year, Ford revealed his sister’s struggles. He has also called the city’s support of a program to provide wine and cigarettes for the homeless “sad and sick.” He said at the time: “I know myself after a couple of glasses of wine I get a little light-headed. These guys must be half-smashed.”