Longtime Mississauga mayor and Canadian icon Hazel McCallion leaves unique legacy


Published January 30, 2023 at 5:10 am

Super Hazel McCallion

If you met Hazel McCallion once, you were sure to not ever forget her.

Whether you came across Mississauga’s longtime mayor in the political arena–as an adversary, colleague or simply an observer–or inside the hockey arena, a place she loved dearly and in which she enjoyed much success in her youth, she left her mark.

An indelible one.

Countless others of all ages rubbed shoulders with Mississauga’s physically diminutive but tough-as-nails matriarch at festivals and other community events the last five decades or so.

McCallion, who burst onto the national and international stage in her second year as mayor when she helped guide Mississauga through the train derailment of 1979, was always out in the community, constantly keeping a busy schedule of visits to such gatherings because she saw them all as can’t-miss events.

And those who caught even a few moments with her left at the end of the day with a story to tell of an encounter they would not soon forget.

Streetsville’s popular Bread and Honey Festival, for example, which celebrates 50 years in 2023, was a favourite hangout for Mississauga’s “Hurricane Hazel” as it welcomed summer each year.

McCallion, who served as mayor of Streetsville from 1970 to 1973 prior to the formation of the City of Mississauga, would graciously shake hands with and tell stories to all those she came across.

The oftentimes pugnacious, fierce defender of all things Mississauga who on countless occasions demanded those in her presence to “do your homework” was, to put it simply, a rock star, of sorts, to many; a political and cultural icon who was known both across Canada and around the world.

McCallion, Mississauga’s fifth mayor, died early Sunday morning at the age of 101 after a month-long battle with pancreatic cancer. She would have celebrated 102 on Feb. 14.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford issued a statement this morning as he delivered news of McCallion’s death, saying she died peacefully at her Streetsville home, in the heart of Mississauga.

Calling her a “dear friend and mentor,” Ford further described Mississauga’s fiercest advocate as the definition of a public servant who guided what was once a collection of villages, all charming in their own right, as it grew into a major urban centre that today is Canada’s seventh-largest city.

“Hazel will be missed dearly by the people that she so faithfully served,” Ford said. “Her city, and our province, are better places because of the amazing life of Hazel McCallion.”

McCallion retired from politics in 2014 after 36 years as mayor, but she remained active until her death as a member of several private sector boards in addition to the board of directors of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), which runs Pearson Airport. 

And she continued to keep a keen eye on all things politics as well.

In her final interview with insauga.com just prior to last October’s municipal election, she spoke about the winning formula when it comes to political races–something she knew a thing or many about.

Key to McCallion’s success in getting returned by voters to the mayor’s seat each and every October she ran from the late 1970s through the 2010 race was her belief that you don’t win elections–for mayor or any other position–by paying attention only during election year.

“You win the next campaign starting the day after the last one,” McCallion told insauga.com in a phone interview. “Anyone who tries to get elected by starting six weeks before or six months before (the election)…that’s not going to get it done. You have to get involved in the community, get yourself known and show the citizens that you want to work for them. That’s the key.

“Every day, you have to work at it and enjoy what you’re doing. And prove to the citizens that you’re interested. It’s simple. It’s common sense.”

What made that much easier through her 36 years in the mayor’s office, she told insauga.com, was that she enjoyed every minute of it.

“Every day I was involved in politics, I loved it. If you don’t enjoy it, you should get out of it,” McCallion said. “And that goes for more than just politics. It goes for whatever you do.”

Though she had been out of the political arena for nearly a decade, McCallion was not entirely out of the spotlight in recent years.

In addition to her work on the community boards, McCallion was also seen consistently at numerous events across the city, and beyond.

And she continued to make news nationally and internationally as well.

Early last year, she was profiled in the New York Times and then a month later featured in two stories in the UK.

Both The Guardian and Independent daily online newspapers in England ran pieces on McCallion in the wake of her earlier reappointment to the GTAA board.

McCallion was appointed a member of the Order of Canada in 2005 and awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Toronto in 2010.

A large exhibit last year at Erin Mills Town Centre marking McCallion’s 100th birthday attracted scores of interested visitors.

Exhibit organizers said the display tried to touch on all aspects of Hazel’s life.

“The stories told through art and displays are an educational experience for our younger generation,” organizers said at the time. “A life journey of a remarkable woman who has broken barriers for most of her life as a daughter, wife, mother, athlete, businesswoman, humanitarian, politician and mentor. A true force to be reckoned with. Hazel has given so much to our city and continues to consult with renowned leaders who seek her counsel.” 

Emergency crews work to clean up in the wake of the 1979 Mississauga train derailment. Mayor Hazel McCallion was widely applauded for her efforts in leading the city through the disaster. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Throughout her life, McCallion was widely respected by other politicians, even many of those with whom she did not mince words. She was even more revered by constituents, who voted her into office with landslide victories for 12 successive terms.

She garnered more than 90 per cent of the mayoral vote several terms in a row despite not campaigning for decades, instead asking those who wanted to make a donation to her campaign to give the money to a charity or a cultural fund.

McCallion ultimately decided to bow out at age 93, leaving the mayor’s office 36 years after she was first elected. On her 80th birthday, she attributed “toughness” from her rural upbringing in the Gaspe, Quebec region to her longevity and political success.

“You’ve got to stand up for what you believe in, which I always have,” McCallion said at the time.

Back when she was still a rookie mayor, McCallion cemented her hard-working reputation injuring her ankle while helping evacuate 200,000 residents from their homes after a train derailed and leaked chlorine gas in November 1979. She continued to hobble to update briefings despite the sprain.

McCallion’s main political speed bump came toward the end of her career in the form of both a judicial inquiry and a conflict-of-interest court case stemming from a failed multimillion-dollar development contract involving her son’s company.

The inquiry judge found in 2011 that McCallion’s actions in promoting the company amounted to a conflict of interest, but the report didn’t say the mayor breached the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.

A Superior Court judge found two years later that McCallion may have shown willful blindness and defied common sense when she voted on the development deal, but it wasn’t enough to warrant ousting her from office.

The scandal had come to light years prior to the 2010 municipal election and she took a huge hit in the polls — relatively speaking. She still won 76 per cent of the votes and her closest challenger came nowhere close.

She turned down invitations from the Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats to run for them federally or provincially, saying politics is far more satisfying at the local level.

“The whole job of being mayor is a wonderful experience,” McCallion said in a 2006 interview with The Canadian Press. “You’re building a community, you’re helping people, you’re making it possible for people to live in a community with all the services they require; I mean that, to me, is satisfaction.”

McCallion also supported other politicians across party lines, endorsing Kathleen Wynne as Liberal premier of Ontario in 2014, but backing Ford, her Progressive Conservative opponent, in the 2018 vote.

The former mayor would meet and speak with Ford as premier, but ultimately turned down a formal appointment as special adviser, with a $150,000 salary, saying she was too busy.

Under McCallion’s watch, Mississauga was debt free and one of the best-run cities fiscally.

The no-nonsense politician spoke her mind when advocating for the interests of her citizens and often the rights of municipalities in general.

At a mayors’ meeting with provincial ministers following the 2003 blackout that left much of the eastern seaboard in the dark, instead of asking a question McCallion took the mic and blasted the ministers for a deteriorating relationship between the two levels of government.

“I’m sick and tired of finger-pointing,” she said to a standing ovation. “Smarten up. Tell the premier he’s out to lunch.”

McCallion was hailed as a hero in 2006 during a police standoff involving a distraught man in Mississauga 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.

Born Hazel Journeaux in Port Daniel, Quebec in 1921, her father owned a fishing and canning company. Her mother was a homemaker and ran the family farm.

After high school, she attended business secretarial school in Quebec City and Montreal. After working there for a time, she was transferred by the Canadian Kellogg company to Toronto.

There, she met and married her husband, Sam McCallion, and they had three children: Peter, Paul and Linda. In 1997, Sam McCallion died of Alzheimer’s disease.

A former professional women’s hockey player in Montreal in the 1930s, McCallion was known to keep a pair of skates and a hockey stick in the trunk of her car in case she came across a pick-up game.

Her political career began in 1967 when she was elected chairman of the planning board in Streetsville.

As mayor, McCallion used lower taxes to attract businesses from the city’s more pricey neighbour, Toronto, creating jobs and helping the city grow.

Mississauga is now the third-largest city in Ontario and the seventh-largest in Canada, with a population of more than 700,000 as of 2021.

In 2016, Ontario proclaimed McCallion’s birthday, Feb. 14, as Hazel McCallion Day.

–with files from The Canadian Press

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