Hazel McCallion, longtime Mississauga mayor, dies at age 101
Long before women were welcome in Canadian politics, Hazel McCallion shoved her way onto the national stage as one of Canada’s most popular mayors — feared and revered by leaders at every level.
Over almost a half-century in politics, McCallion transformed Mississauga from a collection of sleepy rural townships into one of Canada’s most populous cities, a sprawling magnet for national and international businesses.
In 1979, as a rookie Mississauga mayor, she was thrust into the spotlight leading the evacuation of 220,000 residents after the derailment of a train laden with toxic chemicals. International news coverage focused on McCallion’s military-like efficiency and decisive actions in the face of one of the nation’s largest emergency relocations.
McCallion became known as “Hurricane Hazel” — a shrewd and iron-willed politician with a blustery style, common touch and boundless energy.
The woman who for so long seemed unstoppable died early Sunday at age 101 of pancreatic cancer, said Jim Murray, a longtime friend speaking on behalf of her family.
McCallion had been diagnosed just after the New Year and knew her illness was terminal, Murray said. “Jim. I’m 101 years old,” he recalled her saying. “I’ll be 102 if I make it to February 14th. I’ve done way more in my life than I ever thought I would do. None of us get out of this alive. I’m fine.”
McCallion died at home Sunday morning with her son Peter at her side, accompanied by friend and the head of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association Fran Rider, and her German Shepherd, Sauga.
There will be a private family funeral and a public memorial is being planned with more information to come, Murray said.
“There isn’t a single person who met Hazel who didn’t leave in awe of her force of personality,” Premier Doug Ford send in a memorial statement.
It was in support of Ford that McCallion made political headlines even into her final days. Earlier this month, she issued a controversial statement in support of opening up protected Greenbelt land to housing development. As the recently appointed chair of the Greenbelt Council she called the Ford government’s plan “brave, important, responsible and necessary” — an about face for the council that was called “shockingly wrong” by advocacy group Environmental Defence.
“Her city, and our province, are better places because of the amazing life of Hazel McCallion,” Ford said. “Rest easy, my friend.”
Added Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “My dear friend Hazel was an extraordinary woman who wore many hats: a businessperson, an athlete, a politician and one of Canada’s — and the world’s — longest-serving mayors … she was unstoppable.”
McCallion left elected politics after 12 terms as Mississauga mayor in December 2014, at age 93, but barely slowed down. She served as “chief elder officer” for seniors home chain Revera, sat on company boards, advised politicians who often courted her for endorsements, and became the first chancellor of Sheridan College, which named a campus after her.
Other honours include news, announced on her 101st birthday on Valentine’s Day 2022, that an 18-kilometre light-rail transit route between Port Credit and Brampton would be the Hazel McCallion Line.
At the announcement, McCallion’s mayoral successor Bonnie Crombie said: “If you know Mississauga, you know that Hazel’s fingerprints have touched every corner of our city.”
McCallion responded: “I’ve had many things named after me. This one is really unusual and unique.”
On Sunday, Crombie memorialized McCallion as “not only my mentor and political role model but the reason why so many Canadian women were inspired to enter politics.”
“We should all strive to follow her example.”
Former Liberal MP Steve Mahoney, who once served with McCallion on Mississauga council, said in 2006: “We all have faults and Hazel would be the first to admit she has a few. But by and large I cannot think of a mayor in this country, or even North America, who has made a greater contribution to the municipal world, not only for her own city but across the land.”
Hazel Journeaux was born in the tiny waterfront village of Port Daniel on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula in 1921 to parents Herbert, owner of a fish processing plant, and Amanda, a nurse. She was the youngest of five children.
She learned how to skate on a frozen pond and played in a regional women’s hockey league on the Gaspé coast, travelling to games by train, along with her two sisters. Hazel, the smallest of the three, was fast and played centre, while her sisters patrolled the blue line.
Moving to Montreal as a student, McCallion played for Kik Cola, a team sponsored by a soft-drink company, but hung up her skates after graduation to take a job at M.W. Kellogg, an engineering and construction firm.
She worked her way up from secretary to office manager and was sent to Toronto to open a new office. There she worked on plans for the world’s first synthetic rubber plant, in Sarnia.
She met husband Sam McCallion, a printer and photographer, at St. Michael and All Angels Anglican Church in Toronto, where they married in 1951.
They bought a two-hectare farm on Britannia Road in what was then the town of Streetsville, raising children Peter, Paul and Linda. They worked together to establish the Streetsville Booster (later Mississauga Booster) newspaper in the 1960s. Sam died in 1997.
In 1967, McCallion retired from Kellogg. She was president of the chamber of commerce when she started chairing the town’s powerful planning board.
Appalled by the lack of regulation, she jumped into politics on a platform of managed growth, but lost an election for deputy reeve.
The experience was burned into her legendary memory. Reflecting on her political career shortly before it ended, she said, “Women have to work harder; there’s no question about it. When I ran as deputy reeve of Streetsville in 1967, the women worked against me. They couldn’t understand how a woman would want to get into a man’s world, because the mayor and all the members of council were men.
“When I ran in ’78 as mayor of Mississauga, I believe the women played a large role in getting me elected. A lot changed over that decade.”
That resolve allowed her to shrug off early defeat.
“I went back and continued working in the community and the next year that I ran, I won. There had been a close-knit clique that ran Streetsville up until that date.”
After a term as deputy reeve, she won the Streetsville mayor’s chair in 1970 on a pledge to fight the province’s plan to amalgamate Streetsville with Mississauga. That was one of the few battles she lost.
Mississauga became a city in 1974 and McCallion was elected to the new council. Four years later she challenged and beat incumbent mayor Ron Searle in a stunning upset to begin her 36-year reign as mayor.
Calmly leading her city after the Canadian Pacific derailment at Mavis Road sent fireballs high in the sky, McCallion visited evacuation centres and worked with police, fire and provincial officials.
It was later determined most of the potentially deadly chlorine in crumpled tanker cars had been destroyed in the initial explosions but McCallion’s legend was born.
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Such was her popularity that nobody challenged her for the mayor’s chair in 1980, but she soon faced a private prosecution, under the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, from an old Streetsville political foe.
In 1982, a judge convicted McCallion on three counts of violating the act but ruled that she had properly declared her conflict on a development issue at an earlier meeting and made a “bona fide error in judgment” by not repeating it at a public meeting. She kept her seat.
After Searle made a failed comeback attempt in 1982, McCallion was considered unbeatable and never faced a serious election threat until leaving the mayor’s chair. Instead of seeking campaign donations, she urged supporters to donate to charity and was re-elected by huge margins.
For 11 straight years, ending in 2002, Mississauga residents received no property tax hikes. Hundreds of millions of dollars poured into city coffers thanks to a development boom that transformed a city that was heavily rural well into the 1970s.
Mississauga became one of the fastest growing cities in North America. Its population grew almost fourfold between 1970 and 2000.
But the wild growth of expansive housing subdivisions, and McCallion’s perceived closeness to developers, earned her the nickname “The Queen of Sprawl.”
She also faced criticism that short-sighted tax freezes cost her city revenues that could have built urban services and amenities for the flood of new residents.
McCallion would come to see the need for a vibrant city centre, as well as regional co-operation on urban issues.
On McCallion’s 80th birthday in 2001, then Ontario premier Mike Harris said: “You never forget a meeting with Hazel. You always know where she stands. There’s no beating around the bush. She won’t tolerate that from either side.”
Larry Taylor, who locked horns with McCallion in the 1980s and was subsequently ousted by voters, said in 2004: “Anyone who appeared strong enough to provide the leadership to be a successor to her has been effectively pushed out of council.”
But in 2009 McCallion’s own council called a judicial inquiry into her involvement in a $1.6-billion hotel and convention centre application that involved her son Peter.
The project did not proceed, but in 2011 Justice Douglas Cunningham ruled McCallion had a “real and apparent conflict of interest,” pushing hard behind the scenes for a deal that could have put millions of dollars in her son’s pocket.
McCallion had testified she had not known her son was a principal of a company at the centre of the deal, and that she did not read documents she signed that made clear her son’s involvement with the company.
Cunningham did not accept McCallion’s testimony, writing that she “knew of her son’s pecuniary interest from the outset.”
McCallion was not removed from office because she did not violate the narrow scope of Ontario’s conflict of interest law, and later survived another challenge that targeted her votes on the project at city council.
McCallion maintained she did nothing wrong — but the damage had been done.
Her legendary popularity began to slip. She would not contest another election.
Under McCallion, Mississauga grew from a collection of disjointed communities including Port Credit, Malton, Cooksville, Clarkson and Streetsville.
In 2014, as reserve funds dwindled, she admitted to mistakes managing dramatic growth in a car-centred community.
“I think we should have put more money into transit. We tried to get the expansion of transit into our … development levies, and we were rejected on that. The development industry wouldn’t accept it, so we struggled with that and weren’t able to do it.”
She added: “I don’t know of any city that hasn’t started with sprawl … The decision-makers and the developers and the builders, even if they want to build something of their own desire, if they can’t sell it, it won’t be occupied.
“When the people came out to Mississauga in the early days they did not come out to live in a highrise, they came out to live in a single-family home.”
Despite missteps, McCallion knew she was instrumental in Mississauga’s impressive evolution. Its towering skyline — where farm fields once stood — has come to symbolize all her efforts.
She was also instrumental in raising the profile of women’s hockey, first in the 1940s as a star player earning $5 a game on the Kik and later as mayor and active member of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association.
McCallion helped bring the world women’s championship to Ontario cities, including Mississauga in 2000.
On Sunday, the OWHA remembered McCallion as a champion for the sport. “Words cannot fairly express our gratitude and appreciation,” the association said.
After a pickup truck gave her a glancing blow in 2003 as she crossed a street, McCallion went to hospital for a few days but continued working.
Three years later she was behind the wheel when her car struck a hydro pole. McCallion, who had rejected calls for her to have a chauffeur, agreed to hire a part-time driver but continued driving into her 90s.
Toronto Mayor John Tory went to the bedside of McCallion last Wednesday and, according to friend Murray, was the last dignitary to visit before her condition worsened the next day and she was no longer communicative. During their hour-and-a-half visit, McCallion “was lucid and conversational” with the man she described to Murray, “as the best mayor in generations in Toronto.”
“She was a big fan of his,” Murray said.
In a statement Sunday, Tory called McCallion “a friend and a mentor,” adding: “I’m thankful for her kindness, her skill, her quick wit and her bluntness.”
In 2017, at age 96, McCallion said she enjoyed visiting seniors’ residences — she still lived in her house — and urging people to continue a “life of purpose” to the end. Make lists each night, she told residents, of what you hoped to accomplish the next day.
“I don’t want to slow down,” McCallion firmly told the Star. “If I slow down, I’ll get old.”
Mike Funston is a retired Toronto Star reporter.
David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering city hall and municipal politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider
Janet Hurley is a Toronto Star journalist and senior writer covering culture, education and societal trends. She is based in Toronto. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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