Larger-than-life octogenarian mayor heads into her final election next month as the city stands on the doorstep of change
From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail
Published on Tuesday, Sep. 14, 2010 8:13PM EDT
Last updated on Wednesday, Sep. 15, 2010 1:38PM EDT
In her 32-year-long reign over Mississauga, Hazel McCallion has watched the city grow from a collection of villages and farms into the sixth-largest municipality in Canada. At the same time, the diminutive grandmother has become a larger-than-life leader, one of the most popular and enduring politicians in the country, facing little opposition over her lengthy term.
But as the octogenarian heads into her final election on Oct. 25, Mississauga finally seems ready to emerge from her shadow.
In the past four years, councillors have become more assertive, breaking with the mayor on key votes, and citizens’ groups have sprung up in unprecedented numbers. An ongoing judicial inquiry has aired sensational allegations that the mayor intervened to push through a land deal involving her son, making even those who have supported her for decades reassess her leadership.
What’s more, the city itself stands on the doorstep of a fundamental change: Developers’ fees have dried up, meaning Mississauga will have to borrow money for the first time in over 30 years, leading city politicians to talk about transforming the suburbs west of Toronto into a metropolis in its own right.
Ms. McCallion’s political success has partly been driven by her decisive, tough personality (“I think I would fall out of my chair if she came into my office and asked ‘What do you think about this?’” said George Carlson, an affable three-term councillor). It’s also been fuelled by the city’s development. Her administration opened up vast tracts of land to builders but charged them hefty fees to build. This system not only proved a windfall for the city, but by allowing builders on empty land, the city avoided the kinds of messy debates that often accompany development in established communities, says Tom Urbaniak, a Cape Breton University professor and author of a biography of Hazel McCallion.
“It makes for low-temperature politics,” he said.
With most of this land now used up, developers have turned to building in more established neighbourhoods, providing the catalyst for the growth of city-wide citizens groups. When the city planned to move the library in Port Credit into a new condo development in 2007, for example, residents rallied together to oppose the move. Council voted against the mayor, opting to leave the library in place.
“It’s often a galvanizing issue that brings people together. The good news in Mississauga is that people are staying together,” said Dorothy Tomiuk, a website designer and Port Credit resident who first became a civic activist during the tussle over the library. In 2008, she helped form the Mississauga Residents Associations’ Network, a city-wide coalition that offers input on everything from budgets to development issues. “A few years ago, everyone woke up and said ‘Wow, what happened to our charming little town?’”
Meanwhile, the election of two new councillors in 2006 – outspoken former Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish and ex-school trustee Sue McFadden – kicked off an era that has seen more debate at city hall. In 2008, following revelations that the mayor had signed a deal years earlier that gave a minority shareholder in the city’s hydro utility veto power over its decisions, councillors voted to buy the shareholder out over Ms. McCallion’s objections.
Council also began to ask questions about the mayor’s involvement in a failed deal to build a four-star hotel and convention centre near city hall. Her son, Peter McCallion, was listed as a part owner of the company spearheading the development, and his former business partner asserted that the mayor had attended the company’s meetings. Council ultimately voted to call an inquiry.
While the mayor has accused her opponents of making council dysfunctional, they counter that the rise in opposition within city hall – much like the growth of citizens’ movements outside it – is just another sign that the city is growing up.
The city has begun to draw up a plan to guide growth for the next 40 years. It has also encouraged the densification of the city centre, approving several condominium projects, including the Absolute towers. The pair of curving buildings – at 50 and 40 storeys, respectively – will be the tallest on the city’s skyline. Earlier this year, council also gave the go-ahead for a long-term plan to build an LRT on a central thoroughfare, Hurontario Street.
“There’s a little bit of a renaissance going on,” said Mr. Carlson. “It’s very interesting to see a maturing city. It used to be ‘how do I pay my mortgage and when will my park be finished?’ now it’s ‘can we upgrade the park to accommodate the tai chi club?’ We’re putting in more cricket pitches now than baseball diamonds.”