The first things you notice about Hazel McCallion are her diminutive size and a ‘don’t mess with me’ face that one observer once described as like looking at an 18-wheeler coming at you full speed.
For the intimidated, it can be a frightening experience, but lightened by her obvious sense of humour, and by her extraordinary longevity, both personal and political.
Not long after I moved to Toronto a couple of years ago, a W5 producer told me about an experience he had with the then 91-year-old Mississauga mayor, Hazel McCallion. He met her in a restaurant and said it was like being in the presence of a rock star. Impossible to maintain a conversation, he said, because every few seconds, they’d be interrupted by people wanting to shake her hand or take a “me and Hazel” selfie.
Normally, the only politicians who can elicit this kind of public adulation are personality-cult dictators or long retired has-beens. Hazel McCallion is neither. Yet she is so persistently popular in Mississauga that she has been mayor since 1978, has faced no serious opponent since 1982, and hasn’t even bothered to mount a re-election campaign in 25 years. “Give your money to charity,” she tells would-be contributors.
“My policy is that you win the election the day after the last one,” she told W5. “I have seen over the years politicians who slack off after being elected and then in an election year, they show up again at a lot of events. I don’t do that. I don’t look at an agenda with three or four events on a Friday or a Saturday night and say, ‘Oh shucks, do I have to go out tonight?’ I look forward to it, even now.”
W5 approached McCallion a year before her retirement from politics, asking whether she would allow us to follow her around during her final months in office. She agreed.
We made an appointment to meet early one winter morning at her home, a comfortably cluttered two storey house at the end of a quiet Mississauga residential crescent. It is full of mementos and photos from a very long life and career.
“Yes, I am going to miss the job,” she said. “I’ll miss being with people, I enjoy the administration, working with staff and the council. We’ve accomplished a lot. We’ve gone from being a rural municipality to being the sixth largest city in Canada.”
In fact, if a new resident of today’s Mississauga somehow could be sent back 40 years in time, it is almost certain he or she would not have the faintest idea of where they were. The city now is a metropolis of 750,000 people, with a skyline of condominium and office towers built on land that just a few decades ago, was farmer’s fields.
McCallion was overseer of the fastest-growing city in the country. But it is very far from her roots.
Hazel Mary Muriel Journeaux was born on Valentine’s Day, 1921, in Port Daniel on Quebec’s Gaspé coast. There was little money in the family of five children.
She left home as a teenager to attend high school, and then business school in Montreal. While there, she found an unusual, in fact for the time, almost unheard of way to earn some money.
There was a three team professional women’s hockey league in Quebec at the time, sponsored by the soft drink company, Quick Cola. McCallion grew up playing the sport back on the Gaspe coast.
She was, in her own words, small but very fast. She tried out for one of the teams, and made it. Five bucks a game. Not bad money in war time Quebec.
But a job with an Ontario engineering company lured her away from her native Quebec. She and her new husband, Sam McCallion, settled in a quiet village called Streetsville on the edge of Toronto. There, she raised her three children while getting involved in local politics.
She became a councillor, eventually mayor, and when Streetsville was swallowed by the emerging Mississauga, she became a councillor there too. But she had a driving ambition.
“I decided I would not sit as councillor and be negative all the time,” she said. “I decided I would either go up or go out and do something different. It was mayor, or out.”
So she ran, and in 1978, the then 57-year-old became new leader of the new city of Mississauga. Within just a few months, she would face her first crisis.
It happened near midnight on Nov. 10, 1979. A 106-car freight train carrying dangerous chemicals derailed right in the heart of the city.
It sparked what was then, the largest peace time evacuation in North American history. Almost the entire population of Mississauga was moved out and into emergency shelters.
It went off almost without a hitch, and in spite of federal and provincial government involvement, it was the mayor who was given credit.
Her next critically important and significant decision was to take aim at developers wanting to build subdivisions, office and condominium towers to meet the demands of a quickly expanding population. The development fees that she demanded meant that the city’s debt and property tax rates increases were either minimal or non-existent. They remained that way for decades. It earned her a reputation for sound fiscal management.
She also developed a politically astute habit of shopping in different grocery stores every week to meet more people, and attending large numbers of public events. Her popularity meant that she would never face any serious challengers even in the face of some criticism for her salary, one of the highest paid to any mayor in Canada, and a conflict of interest controversy that would have ended the political careers of almost anybody else.
It happened a decade ago when a developer came forward with a proposal to build a convention centre and hotel complex. The mayor wanted a convention centre but the problem that later became public was that her son Peter was part of the development team.
In the subsequent inquiry, Ontario Judge Douglas Cunningham’s conclusions were damning. He said, “The mayor’s actions amounted to both a real and apparent conflict of interest. On any view of the evidence, Peter McCallion stood to gain substantially on the successful completion of the project.”
The project never went through and while the justice system concluded the mayor had made errors in judgement, there was no case to prosecute and the case was dropped.
And in typical fashion, the people of Mississauga appeared to believe her explanation that she was only trying to do what she thought was best for the city. She went on to win the next election with 80 per cent support.
No opponent has ever come close to denting that popularity and the only serious challenge to her leadership has been advancing years. As she was approaching her ninth decade of life, she made a decision that inevitably, had to come sometime.
“It was time to go,” she said. “It was my age.”
She has been the only mayor that the vast majority of people in Mississauga have ever known. The only boss almost all city employees have ever had. On a sunny fall morning, they were invited into the large square in front of city hall to say good-bye.
She gave an impromptu speech, voice cracking with emotion while thanking everyone. She handed back the microphone, stepped from the stage, and then began shaking hands with people who stood waiting in a line that stretched through the square. She would be standing there for more than 90 minutes.
And then, a final group photo. City employees scrambled for position in a semi-circle filling a corner of the square. The 93-year-old does not say she is retiring, but prefers to describe it as moving on to something else.
What that something else is anyone’s guess but who can be blamed for thinking that the good-bye photo of diminutive Hazel McCallion surrounded by hundreds of faces, may become part of her resume.
W5 airs Saturday @ 7 pm on CTV and @ 10 pm on CTV 2. Also available on CTVNews.ca.