Hazel McCallion, No-Nonsense Canadian Mayor for 36 Years, Dies at 101

Hazel McCallion, who as the longest-serving mayor in Canadian history transformed the sleepy Toronto suburb of Mississauga into a multicultural dynamo and the country’s sixth-largest city, died at her home there on Jan. 29, nine years after she ended her 36-year run. She was 101.

Doug Ford, the premier of Ontario and a close friend of Mrs. McCallion’s, said she died from pancreatic cancer.

When Mrs. McCallion first won office, in 1978, Mississauga was a sprawling centerless community of about 250,000 people, little more than an extension of Toronto, its much larger neighbor to the east. Today it has a dense downtown core of skyscrapers, robust arts institutions and 750,000 people.

And while Mississauga in the 1970s was overwhelmingly white, the city is now one of Canada’s most diverse, drawing immigrants from East and South Asia.

Mrs. McCallion did not just survive but thrive through 12 terms by blending thrifty pragmatism with open-armed populism.

Though she leaned slightly to the political left, she did not hew to a party platform or ideology. Her singular goal was to bring prosperity to Mississauga, which she did by keeping budgets trim — the city rarely carried debt or raised property taxes — and being unafraid to assert her city’s interests against its neighbors or in the Ontario provincial government.

A copy of The Streetsville Booster, a community newspaper founded by Hazel and Sam McCallion, from 1978, the first year she ran for mayor of Mississauga. She won that election and went on to serve 12 terms.Credit…Cole Burston/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Hazel McCallion does not caution,” the magazine Toronto Life wrote in 2003. “She berates. She harangues. She, well, bites off people’s heads.”

But if politicians and bureaucrats feared her, voters loved her.

After she decided not to run for re-election in 2014, she picked her successor, Bonnie Crombie, who won handily. No one was surprised: Mrs. McCallion left office with an 85 percent approval rating. They called her Hurricane Hazel, a tribute to her brash style more than a reference to the weather disaster that killed 80 people in Toronto in 1954.

Her reputation was cemented just months after she took office, when a train carrying tons of toxic and flammable chemicals overturned near the middle of Mississauga. She immediately ordered most of the town, some 220,000 residents, to evacuate. Over several days she was there alongside the police and firefighters, ushering people to safety, undeterred by an ankle sprained along the way.

And when it was over, she was fierce in her demand for damages.

“It will be an astronomical sum,” she told reporters, “and somebody is going to get the bill.”

Mrs. McCallion played professional hockey in the 1930s, and she remained the picture of ruddy health through her time as mayor, a fact that endeared her to voters. Even into her 80s, she carried a hockey stick in her car trunk, in case she came across a game. She fished, hiked and once, when she was 87, biked five miles to work to promote alternatives to driving.

Mrs. McCallion in an undated photo. She won re-election repeatedly without campaigning or fund-raising, and she never faced serious opposition. Credit…Tara Walton for The New York Times

She had come to politics from a career with an engineering company, starting in 1964 as a candidate for a municipal office in Streetsville, a village within Mississauga’s borders. After the two entities, along with a few others, combined to create the city of Mississauga, she moved effortlessly into the mayor’s office after defeating the incumbent by just 3,000 votes in her 1978 race.

She never faced another serious opponent, and in two of her elections she didn’t face one at all, winning by acclamation. She did this without campaigning or fund-raising; she encouraged supporters eager to open their wallets to give to charity instead.

“I don’t run a campaign, as you know,” she told the Canadian Press news agency in 2010. “I’m there with them four years. I don’t wait for an election to come along to campaign.”

She was Mississauga’s chief booster, promoting it as a dynamic place that welcomed the businesses and the influx of immigrants entering Canada in the 1970s and ’80s.

She was not without critics, who considered her imperious and even dictatorial. And she conceded that she kept a tight grip on the Mississauga City Council, allowing little dissent, at least in public.

In 1982 and again in 2009, she was accused of failing to disclose conflicts of interest: first when land she and her husband owned was included in a possible development project, and later when she lobbied for a hotel project in which one of her sons was an investor.

The first instance was not illegal at the time, and the second, which did go to court, was thrown out by a judge in 2013. Taken together, it was a record her defenders considered remarkably clean for a political career that began before most of her voters were born.

A selection of McCallion memorabilia at the 2022 exhibition. “Having time on my hands is not acceptable,” she once said when asked if she thought about leaving office.Credit…Tara Walton for The New York Times

Hazel Journeaux was born on Feb. 14, 1921, in Port-Daniel, a small town on the Gaspé Peninsula in southeast Quebec. Her father, Herbert, ran a fishing and processing company, and her mother, Amanda (Travers) Journeaux, was a nurse.

The family moved to Montreal when Hazel was still a child, and after high school she took secretarial and business classes before being hired by M.W. Kellogg, an engineering company.

She spent several years as professional hockey player in Montreal, cementing a lifelong love for the sport. She played center for a team sponsored by Kick, a cola brand, and made $5 a game, the equivalent of about $65 in U.S. dollars today. In 1987 the Women’s World Hockey Championship named its trophy the Hazel McCallion World Cup.

Her hockey career ended in 1940, when Kellogg opened an office in Toronto and she was sent to manage it.

She married Sam McCallion in 1951. He died in 1997. She is survived by her sons, Peter and Paul; her daughter, Linda Burgess; and a granddaughter.

Mrs. McCallion spent more than two decades as a manager with Kellogg before leaving to work with her husband and his printing business, and to get involved in politics in Streetsville. After three years on the village council, she was elected mayor of Streetsville in 1970.

After the creation of the city of Mississauga, she served on its council for four years before being elected mayor in 1978 at age 57.

Before, during and after her time as mayor, she led a backbreaking workday, rising at 5:30 and starting meetings at 7. She swatted away questions about leaving office, even long after most people her age would have retired.

“Having time on my hands is not acceptable,” she told The Toronto Star in 2001, when she was 80. “If I quit, I’d have to find something very challenging to do. And what could be more challenging than being mayor?”

After she finally did end her run as mayor in 2014, at 93, she continued to work. She served as the first chancellor of the Hazel McCallion Campus of Sheridan College, a Toronto-area technical school; she advised Mr. Ford, the Ontario premier; and she oversaw the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, a job that in 2019 took her on a tour of the world’s busiest airports.

In a 2022 interview with the newspaper The National Post, she summed up her philosophy by recalling something her mother would ask her when she was young: “What do you want to accomplish in life? Do you want to be a follower or do you want to take advantage of opportunities to be a leader?”

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