Hazel McCallion, the pint-sized “Hurricane” who ruled Mississauga, Ont., as mayor for 12 terms and into her 94th year, has died. She was 101.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that McCallion died at home early Sunday morning.
“Hazel was the true definition of a public servant,” Ford said in a statement announcing her death. “There isn’t a single person who met Hazel who didn’t leave in awe of her force of personality. I count myself incredibly lucky to have called Hazel my friend over these past many years.”
In a statement, McCallion’s successor, Bonnie Crombie said, “Hazel was not only my mentor and political role model but the reason why so many women were inspired to enter politics.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement that he remembered the “unstoppable” McCallion.
“We will remember her as a trailblazer whose career in politics and service to her community will remain an inspiration to all of us. But mostly, we will remember her as a dear friend,” he said.
McCallion lost her first political race. But after that 1966 contest for deputy reeve, she would not be defeated in her next 17 electoral campaigns in the city that adjoins Toronto to the west.
As mayor of Mississauga from 1978 to 2014, she went unopposed twice and was not seriously threatened by rivals in nine other re-election bids. One hapless foe likened taking her on to “challenging somebody’s favourite grandmother.” He said that in 1985; she was not yet halfway into her tenure.
McCallion earned her nickname — after the Hurricane Hazel that battered southern Ontario in 1954 — soon after taking decisive action during an explosive train derailment in 1979. She embodied the moniker through the decades: strong, fearless and sometimes indiscriminate in her targets.
She was not the first female mayor of a large city, nor the first woman to lead a smaller region — Mayor Charlotte Whitton of Ottawa and Reeve Mary Fix of Toronto Township held top municipal roles — but Hazel became a first name in Canadian mayors irrespective of gender.
McCallion hated the term “feminist,” however, and described her approach in a male-dominated field in typically impolitic terms: “Think like a man, act like a lady and work like a dog.”
She set an agenda that saw all of Mississauga, not just land close to populated areas, open for business to developers. In turn, developers paid levies and helped provide libraries, arenas and community centres, but some critics dubbed her the “Queen of Sprawl” as a result.
City coffers brimmed, and McCallion was able to burnish her reputation for running government like a business. At one point, Mississauga ratepayers went a decade without seeing a property tax increase.
“I only spend the taxpayers’ money Iike I spend my own, which is seldom,” she said in 2014. “The people of Mississauga love that.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory remembered McCallion for her “absolute” commitment to local government. “She didn’t hesitate to work with the federal and provincial governments to get things done for her city but she also spoke truth to power and held those same governments to account whenever she had to,” he said in a statement. “You always knew where you stood with Hazel.”
Retirement from politics did not silence Hurricane Hazel, as she made frequent public appearances, including for a 100th birthday party. In June 2016 she began a three-year term as the first chancellor of Sheridan College, a step in its bid to become a university.
“I never had the opportunity to go to college or university myself; it wasn’t financially possible,” McCallion told the Toronto Star. “But I really believe education is so important because the future of our Canadian economy is going to be brainpower.”
A senior public school, college campus, university learning centre, hospital wing and public library all bear her name in Mississauga.
WATCH | CBC’s Dwight Drummond speaks to Hazel McCallion prior to her 100th birthday:
Mississauga was the proverbial bedroom community when she took office, but since then its population has increased from 280,000 to 750,000 people. Canada’s seventh-largest city is also home to dozens of corporate headquarters.
McCallion’s career arc was forever changed when 25 cars of a Canadian Pacific Railway train derailed on Nov. 10, 1979, with propane explosions near the city centre sending flames high into the sky.
She spearheaded a large-scale evacuation due to the threat of chlorine turning toxic in the atmosphere, and she pressed the rail company and federal government for answers and action.
McCallion was hailed as a hero in 2006 during a police standoff involving a distraught man who was threatening to kill himself. The five-hour standoff came to a peaceful end when McCallion appeared and demanded the man stand down so police, paramedics and fire personnel could attend to more important matters.
Hurricane Hazel thrived in the spotlight
She would thrive on being in the spotlight and on going to battle — whether it was with her own council, the federal government over developments at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in the city, or the provincial government over transit funding. Former Ontario premier David Peterson admitted that she “scares the bejesus out of me.”
McCallion scored points with her constituency this way, and Liberal, Conservative and NDP targets all felt her wrath at various points.
“I could never toe the party line,” she told CBC’s As It Happens when asked why she never considered running provincially or federally. “I’d wear out the carpet crossing the floor.”
McCallion’s longevity was a testament to her prowess as a retail politician — she rarely missed a local shindig — and her control of council.
But public apathy played a part, with just 21 to 34 per cent turning out to vote when she faced a challenger. And with so many nascent neighbourhoods, mobilization on issues was infrequent.
“We do not even see the embryo of a base or movement that could challenge the mayor on the way the city was being planned,” Tom Urbaniak says of an extended period in the 1990s, in his book Her Worship: Hazel McCallion and the Development of Mississauga.
The media glare wasn’t exactly withering, either. Mississauga is Canada’s largest city without a daily print newspaper, and Toronto media coverage was as likely to be focused on McCallion the indomitable personality as it was on the details of issues facing the city.
Being in charge for 36 years, she committed some gaffes along the way, such as when she told the National Post in 2001, “If you go to the Credit Valley Hospital, the emergency is loaded with people in their native costumes.” She later insisted she was only complaining about non-citizens affecting queues.
More serious were the conflict-of-interest probes.
McCallion failed to declare a conflict on a vote involving land that included a tract her family owned. It was ruled an error in judgment in July 1982, allowing her to stay in power.
Late in her civic career, McCallion participated in several meetings regarding plans for a convention centre involving a company in which her son Peter was a principal. She did declare a conflict in front of council, saving herself from dismissal through the narrow Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, the only punishment provided under the act.
But in 2011, a chief justice concluded in a 386-page report that her actions were improper, not transparent and in “real and apparent conflict of interest” according to common-law principles.
In addition to the ethical question marks, many believe Mississauga should have spent more years while the economy was healthy saving for a rainy day, as the city will face severe issues in the years ahead in funding transit and infrastructure improvements.
Regardless, McCallion was undoubtedly a political force as she entered her 10th decade.
“There’s a lot of luck and good genes involved when you live a long life, but feistiness plays a role, too,” she said.
Hazel Journeaux was born on Feb. 14, 1921, in Port Daniel, Que., a very small town in the Gaspé Peninsula. The youngest of five children developed a life-long passion for hockey and eventually landed in Montreal for education and her first professional jobs. With the engineering firm Canadian Kellogg, she moved to Toronto in her late 20s.
She met Sam McCallion there through an Anglican association and they settled in Streetsville, beside the Township of Toronto. They raised three kids, and he ran printing and photography businesses as she became more engaged with municipal affairs in the 1960s.
As citizens went to the polls to vote for Streetsville’s mayor in 1969, a Mississauga Times headline described the race succinctly: “The Lady Against the Ex-Mayor.”
The lady won, and complained loudly of then-Tory premier Bill Davis’s plan in the early 1970s to merge Streetsville with Port Credit and the Toronto Township into the city of Mississauga.
It would later be suggested that she was much too canny politically to not know the union was inevitable and that her stance helped with visibility and voter support for future battles. She began serving on Mississauga’s city council in 1974 and became the unstoppable mayor four years later.
Sam McCallion would be a supportive partner for more than half her term. Alzheimer’s disease began to take its toll a few years before his 1997 death.
McCallion decided not to run in the 2014 election, and not surprisingly, the candidate she endorsed — Bonnie Crombie — prevailed.
She could well have won again had she run. One citizen expressed his feelings to the Mississauga News about the inquiry that dogged her late in her career, and he was hardly an outlier: “The credit rating here is triple-A and there’s never been any debt. I don’t care what they say she’s done, I’d still vote for her.”
Earlier this month, McCallion backed the Ford government’s proposed changes to the province’s Greenbelt from her position as chair of the Greenbelt Council, weighing in on “the recent storm” over the Ontario government’s plan to open up protected lands for housing development.
“If we are to meet the challenges of the epically growing human population of the GTA and provide truly livable and affordable communities, then we must allow for housing and new communities to be created where it makes sense to do so — where there is existing services and infrastructure, adjacent to existing development,” McCallion wrote in a Jan. 18 open letter.
That same day, Ontario’s integrity commissioner and auditor general announced separate investigations into the provincial decision.
According to the City of Mississauga, McCallion died at about 6:30 a.m. at home with her family.
McCallion is survived by sons, Peter and Paul, daughter Linda and a granddaughter.