True grit: “Hurricane” Hazel McCallion’s last hurrah after 33 years as the mayor of Mississauga

True grit: “Hurricane” Hazel McCallion’s last hurrah after 33 years as the mayor of Mississauga

While Mississauga turned into a massive city of immigrants, Hazel McCallion remained the same stubborn, penny-pinching mayor. Now, in her final term, her legacy is threatened by allegations of misconduct and a gang of critics determined to take her down

Sweet 90th: In January, a furor erupted over a leaked memo indicating that city hall would pay for councillors to go to McCallion’s birthday gala. The mayor dismissed the controversy as overblown 

On a mid-January morning, Hazel McCallion looks out her backyard window and sees blood in the snow. Missy, her long-haired German shepherd, has killed a rabbit. The dog has never done this before, and it strikes McCallion as strange. She furrows her furrowed brow.

This is also the first day the mayor has agreed to let me watch her at work. A dead rabbit in the morning is an ominous sign, but those are everywhere these days. McCallion, who has built a successful career and a city without changing her approach in over 30 years, is now under siege. She’ll be 90 years old in a few weeks—a curiosity in itself—and her peculiar morning is just the start of another day in a year of scandal and recriminations.

I arrived at her 1980s two-storey brick house in Streetsville at 7:30, but she was awake long before—she starts every day at 5:30. She lives alone. (Sam, her husband of nearly 46 years, had Alz­heimer’s, and died of pneumonia in 1997.) Her property is surrounded by similar houses. Much of the residential development in Mississauga happened in clusters, repetitive blocks of townhouses and condos, and almost everywhere you go you have the feeling you’ve been there before. McCallion says seven years ago her street ended in a farm. She would walk over to buy eggs.

Every surface in her living room is cluttered with embroidered pillows, German shepherd–themed knick-knacks, and photographs of McCallion with such notables as Oscar Peterson and Pope John Paul II. When you are mayor, you get a lot of stuff: cans of nuts, a tall glass canister of Lindt chocolates, potted poinsettias.

Disposing of the dead rabbit leaves her little time to read her morning papers. She usually flips through the Star, the Globe, the Post and the Mississauga News, marking articles with yellow stickies. There is no time for breakfast, either, so she shoves her work papers into cloth shopping bags, orders the dog into the cage that takes up a corner of the living room, and heads to her grey Malibu hybrid parked in the driveway. The darkness of the early hour is punctured by a surprise snowfall, fat and heavy, and the car’s windshield is covered in a sheet of ice. McCallion doesn’t scrape it off; instead, she climbs in and cranks up the heat, backing out onto the crescent.

McCallion is tiny, barely five feet tall, and so is eye level with the small circle of clear windshield, which defrosts at a very slow rate. She manoeuvres quickly through the streets, peering over the wheel like a sitcom granny. She turns on Newstalk 1010 quite loud. A panel is discussing reports of a woman freezing to death on the sidewalk in the east end of Toronto, no one answering her screams. “Terrible,” McCallion murmurs.

When we stop at a red light, another driver spots her licence plate (“Mayor1”) and waves. She waves back, and, yes, it happens all the time.

McCallion arrives at the modern, recently renovated Mississauga city hall, parks in her underground spot, and takes the elevator to the third floor. She is the first one there. She turns on the lights in her office, which looks across a four-lane road at the massive Square One shopping mall. Three large fish that McCallion caught in Lake Ontario are mounted on the walls. Her tidy desk looks emptier than most office desks because there’s no computer on it—she doesn’t use one. She doesn’t use a smart phone, either. She tried using a BlackBerry, but found the keys too small. She will, however, soon be getting “an iPod,” she says. A what? “Wait—iPad, that’s what I meant to say.”

Perhaps it is mere ageism, with a little sexism thrown in, that prompts one to wonder if a bath is the only thing a 90-year-old woman should be running. But there she is, day after day, year after year, surrounded by office buildings and malls that she OK’d, as if she waved a wand and a city was built. Her office faces Hazel McCallion Walk, an entryway to the Square One shopping extravaganza of department stores and chain restaurants. Her folk hero status is evident in the number of things named after her: a ballroom in the Delta Meadowvale Hotel, a school, a wine, a rose and bobble-head dolls—the kind of tributes usually reserved for the dead. She is Hurricane Hazel, a nickname she loves.

McCallion is in her 12th term as mayor of what is now Canada’s sixth largest city. But last fall, she seemed at risk of losing the election, thanks to a conflict-of-interest investigation that is nearing its end. Her accusers say she used her office to promote a $14.4-million land deal brokered by her son, Stetson hat–wearing Peter McCallion. (She also has a daughter, Linda, and a second son, Paul, who publishes the Mississauga Booster.) McCallion has admitted that she sat in on more than 20 meetings with Peter and other parties who had invested in World Class Developments, the company her son formed to build a luxury hotel and convention centre next to Mississauga city hall. She doesn’t dispute that she intervened at the 11th hour to try to stop the deal from falling apart. But at the judicial inquiry, the mayor’s lawyer argued that when McCallion advocated for the sale of a plot of land to WCD, she did so purely to serve the city’s best interests. What’s good for Mississauga is good for everyone, and if her son happens to profit, that’s just a happy coincidence.

Little big woman: McCallion shares her Streetsville home with her dog, Missy. Her living room is cluttered with the gifts and knickknacks she has received in her job as mayor, including an honorary boxing championship belt 

With the stench of influence peddling upon her, she lost the endorsement of her former champion, the Mississauga News—the paper accused her of becoming “a lame duck mayor who won’t work with anyone who challenges her authority.” And city council, mostly supportive of her every whim up until this past term, had become fractious. The seven councillors who had pushed back against her during the previous four years were led by former MP Carolyn Parrish, who spearheaded the call for the inquiry. Despite the uproar, and without campaigning, McCallion won with 76 per cent of the vote.

She won, but her enemies on council kept at it. In January, as the hearings into the land deal dragged on, an unknown source leaked a memo to reporters indicating that city hall was willing to pay for councillors’ tickets to the mayor’s 90th birthday gala—a gravy train-ish moment that looked like partying on the taxpayers’ dime.

It’s likely that the strength of her persona will prevent the results of the inquiry—due this spring—from tarnishing her image. She may get a slap on the wrist and move on. If that happens, her Teflon recovery will be infuriating to those who oppose her on council, yet another example of how the matronly icon remains untouchable, ruling the city as her personal fiefdom.

Mississauga contains multitudes: it is the very definition of suburban sprawl. It’s also rich. At least, it was rich. As the city grew, development levies filled Mississauga’s reserves, and kept it out of debt for decades. Now the city is straining at its borders, most of the land is filled up, and the income from levies has been reduced to a trickle. The coffers are nearly empty, and there’s no money to fix the aging infrastructure. Council anticipates a $1.5-billion infrastructure deficit over the next 20 years.

If McCallion created Mississauga, transformed it from a farmland bedroom community into a prosperous city, then she created its problems, too, substituting fiscal prudence for a vision. She set up Mississauga’s council in such a way that it’s as much of a one-woman show as a democracy will allow. She rose to mayor of Streetsville in the ’60s as a citizen who shone bright on public committees. Tom Urbaniak, a political scientist who has followed McCallion’s career, has written how, after becoming mayor of Mississauga in 1978, she reorganized the bureaucracy to make it nearly impossible for individual councillors to rise in prominence and challenge her rule. McCallion has never had a permanent deputy mayor, which is rare in a city of Mississauga’s size; the position rotates among the councillors. McCallion herself chairs the budget committee.

The absence of much formal public input in her government has gone relatively unquestioned because she is a mingler, constantly chatting up the citizenry, often making a dozen appearances a week. McCallion says she didn’t bother to campaign in the fall election because she already knew she would win, as if she has a mystical connection to the populace: “I know my people. I’m with them all the time. I knew how they felt.”

There’s nothing contrite in McCallion, no hint she’s aware that by pushing the private deal she may be in conflict with her public duties

In a way, her political longevity is self-fulfilling. A recent Harvard study of congressional candidates in the U.S. found that even negative press can at times help a politician win: it’s the volume, not the tone, that influences a voter’s appraisal. What Hazel McCallion has is name and face recognition—more than 30 years’ worth. Her brand is a unique mixture of maternal authority and fiscal toughness, and she trades off both sides constantly, playing them against each other.

One Saturday morning, I watch her at the Clarkson Arena, where she opens the Minor PeeWee “A” Friendship tournament. On a red carpet at the edge of the rink, a woman from the hockey association introduces McCallion: “She’ll be 90 on February 14, she’s been the mayor since 1978, and she has a popularity rating of 190 per cent!” Cheers. A mascot in a panda costume does air punches nearby.

McCallion takes the microphone. “I hope you’re happy with all the money we’re spending to improve your community centre,” she says. “But I just want to warn you: there might be a little tax increase!” This gets a small laugh. McCallion is known as the no-tax mayor. In the upcoming weeks, because of increased labour costs and revenue shortfalls, she and her council will reluctantly raise property taxes by three per cent.
In the arena’s stands, McCallion talks to some of the boys from a Toronto team who have just finished a game. “Mississauga is taking over Toronto, don’t you know?” she jokes. They look bewildered. The hockey dads and a few teenage sisters pull out their cellphones to take pictures of the 11-year-olds flanking the mayor. She is shorter than many of them.

McCallion travels alone to events. No publicist, no handler. “Some mayors take staff with them to conferences,” she tells me. “They have their PR person, their executive assistants. I know David Miller used to take three or four people with him. I feel that if any questions are asked, I should be able to answer. I’m a hands-on mayor.” She drives herself just about everywhere, too. For years, she says, the city budget included a driver for the mayor, until she told them to take it out because it was never used. More pennies saved.

Nor does she use any kind of security, except for a couple of weeks several years ago, when an Albertan who had just been released from prison mailed a note to a newspaper saying he was going to kill the mayor of Mississauga and the premier of Ontario. Until police found the guy—who was mentally ill and had never met McCallion—they kept cars idling outside her house and tailed her wherever she went. It annoys her still. “What a waste of taxpayers’ money,” she says.

As we drive to her next stop, past subdivision upon subdivision and the occasional park, McCallion talks about how changing demographics have affected her job. There’s no need for the city to build hockey rinks anymore, because men’s hockey enrolment is down, she says. Mississaugans today want cricket and field hockey.

When McCallion became mayor, the population was 280,000 and predominantly of European descent. Now it’s 740,000, and 49 per cent are visible minorities. Toronto has its much-trumpeted fantasy of diversity, but multiculturalism is really a suburban enterprise. McCallion has been accused of being slow to appreciate her city’s diversity. In 2001, she complained to the National Post columnist Diane Francis about the burden of immigrants on hospitals. “If you go to the Credit Valley Hospital, the emergency is loaded with people in their native costumes,” she was quoted as saying. “A couple will come here as immigrants and each bring their parents. Now you have four people who never contributed a nickel toward our medical system using it at an age when they will cost everyone a great deal of money.” South Asians protested at city hall with signs reading: “We don’t want a racist mayor.” McCallion claimed that the remarks were taken out of context but made an apology. She has spent the years since boasting of Mississauga’s diversity with Matt Galloway–like frequency. Over two weeks in January, she made appearances at Vietnamese, Indian and Jewish associations. We drive by a Coptic Orthodox church, and McCallion brags: “We have three now.”

We enter the parking lot of an old strip mall with a pizza place, a variety store and a pharmacy sporting a Grand Re-Opening banner. A chair sits in a parking spot with a piece of paper taped to it: “Parking for Mayor.” She refuses my steadying hand in the icy lot. Only once over the four days I shadow McCallion, when her arms are completely filled with bags and budget reports, does she allow me to carry something for her, and even then a little begrudgingly.

Her folk hero status is evident in the number of buildings and things named after her—the kind of tributes usually reserved for the dead

The pharmacy has existed for 54 years, and has been renovated into a clean, warm space waiting for her to cut a literal red ribbon. Inside, the owners wait at the door. “Madam Mayor! This is the greatest mayor in the world!” exclaims Mehul Panchmatia, impeccably turned out in a suit and shiny shoes. His wife, Alka, grins widely, glamorous in designer jeans. Panchmatia’s mother, in a sari, spots McCallion and looks like a preteen who has run into Justin Bieber.

“She was supposed to come Tuesday. We had 200 people, but she couldn’t make it,” says Panchmatia, a little forlorn. Still, about 20 people mingle throughout the store, waiting to meet the mayor. In here, politics feels like celebrity, with its adoring throngs, its endless assertion that you matter more than you ever could. “Hi Hazel! I’ve always wanted to meet you!” a clown in a red fright wig shouts as she paints children’s faces. McCallion does little to court the adoration; she is not flamboyant or even particularly charismatic. She is an oddity: the tiny mayor, the old mayor.

A table of Tim Hortons’ coffee, sandwiches and cake waits for takers. McCallion accepts a cup of coffee and a finger sandwich (she’s already had two cups of coffee at the arena) and makes chit-chat. Being mayor is like an endless round of speed dating. McCallion is asked the same questions (“How was the fishing this summer?”) and asks her own staple questions. To the adults (who are often nervous and tongue-tied, but always grinning), she talks weather. To the children, she says: “What school do you go to?” One man shakes her hand and tells her he likes fishing, too. His daughter, about 12, pipes up: “One time, my daddy got a hook in the back of his head!”

“A hook? Oh, that’s terrible!” says the mayor. “I have a 32-pound salmon and a nine-pound brown trout on the wall of my office.”

And then the mayor has to absorb the problems of the people: a balding man who tells her how he feels betrayed by a hospital, how he needs someone to look at his records, how Health Canada has forgotten him. McCallion listens, though her eyes are unfocused, looking past him. Finally, she says: “Well, obviously I can’t get involved in that!” The guy doesn’t seem to mind. He leaves grinning, as if McCallion’s straight-shooter gruffness is its own reward.

She talks about hockey to the crowd, saying: “We need to get the East Asians into hockey, and the South Asians, too. That’s the trick.” Panchmatia murmurs and nods. (Hockey is a big deal for McCallion. She played professionally in a Montreal women’s league in the 1940s for $5 a game. She still carries her skates in the trunk of her car.)

She stays almost an entire hour, getting her picture taken with every employee and citizen who wanders by, even a snot-faced kid in a Leafs jersey rising up over his belly. Only when every hand has been shaken, sometimes twice, does she leave. A few people come to the curb and wave at her as she drives away, the master retail politician. It feeds something in her, too. “That kind of thing,” she says, “is the best part of my job.”

It’s 3 p.m. now, and we head back to McCallion’s house. If one were searching for evidence of McCallion’s age, the only obvious symptom would be that she often repeats herself. She is especially fond of mentioning the fact that Mississauga houses the head offices of 60 Fortune 500 companies. Also, she says to me—and to the people in the pharmacy, and later in council—that “we” made a mistake when the city was developing, by failing to sufficiently consider transit. The sensible catchphrase she repeats: “I believe transit is a social issue.” This isn’t necessarily a sign of senility: repetition is where old people, toddlers and politicians intersect, endlessly drumming their agendas, the on-message echo.

What she repeats most is her perception that the media are trying to ruin her. Back in the ’60s, McCallion and her husband founded a monthly tabloid called the Streetsville Booster, which became the Mississauga Booster. She proudly tells me her publication ran only good news. She misses that era. She says today’s press has an agenda to push her out of office: “The press is vital to the success of democracy. They’ve just got to do more of their homework, and they’ve got to be less sensational. They emphasize the negativity.”

Being criticized by the press is relatively new to McCallion.She endured a few scandals over the decades, including another conflict-of-interest debacle in 1982 when she took a direct part in council discussions about releasing 3,800 acres of land for development—five of the acres were owned by her and her husband. She was found guilty of violating the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, though the judge considered it a bona fide error in judgment, meaning she would not need to vacate her office.

She has mostly been a media darling from the beginning of her political career. She was in office only a year when, in 1979, a CP train carrying toxic freight derailed and she calmly led an evacuation of the city; a hero was born. She placed second in the World Mayor poll in 2005. Regis Philbin came to her 80th birthday party (“I didn’t know who he was at the time”).

The inquiry into her involvement in her son’s business deal, coupled with the birthday party scandal, has recently made her the subject of cross-ideological criticism, with the Sun, the Star and particularly the Post all slamming her. In response, McCallion has adopted a Sarah Palin–esque perspective, blaming a conspiratorial and irresponsible media machine, positioning herself as the bruised little guy up against the mega-corp.

Incredulity was her reaction to the birthday scandal (or Missi­leaks, as the Post tagged it). In early January, a memo from city manager Janice Baker was leaked to the press. In it, she had offered each of the councillors a pair of tickets, at $350 per ticket, to the mayor’s gala­. McCallion claimed to know nothing about this, but pointed out that the gala was less a birthday party than a fundraiser for Sheridan College. She appeared on Newstalk 1010, and sounded a little unhinged. She said the coverage of the leaked memos was part of the same poisonous media atmosphere that led to the shootings in Tucson, Arizona.

About the radio appearance, she describes the reporter as too aggressive. “She said: ‘Are you saying it’s not a waste of money?’ And I said: ‘Are you asking me to say that contribution to an institution that we’ve worked so hard to get is a waste of money?’ I told her it wasn’t a waste of money. Whether it should come from the city, or the expense account, or the pocket, that’s the question,” she says. “It’s turned into a real shemozzle.”

She blames much of the council conflict on Carolyn Parrish, the former MP who is famous for being caught on a boom microphone saying “Damn Americans. I hate those bastards” after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. McCallion believes that Parrish’s agenda is personal: she wants to be mayor. In 2009, Parrish ripped a pro-McCallion poster off a wall in a Port Credit restaurant and tore it into bits, doing a little dance. Quid pro quo: when Parrish was defeated in the fall by the Hazel loyalist Ron Starr, McCallion reportedly gave a cheer and a dance herself.

It was Parrish who pushed for the conflict-of-interest investigation. The inquiry bothers McCallion, but not because she thinks it looks as though she attempted to help her son secure the deal. What bothers her is the waste of money: “The inquiry costs $7 million, and the tickets to my birthday cost $7,000, and for a good cause. So talk about waste!”

There is nothing contrite in McCallion, no awareness that her pushing such a private deal may be in conflict with her public duties. “What we sadly lack in Mississauga is a convention centre in our city core,” she says. “My son got somebody to invest in doing exactly what we’ve always wanted done for years and nobody came forward and did it. He finally found somebody who was prepared to invest the money. And it’s gone down the drain.”

McCallion has adopted a Sarah Palin–esque perspective, blaming a conspiratorial media machine and positioning herself as the bruised little guy

McCallion looks exhausted by our conversation, on the heels of her morning appearances. She’s rubbing her eyes. I get up to leave, dialing a cab on my cellphone. She remarks about my phone, and how much technology has changed.

Then she tells a story: In the ’40s, she was working for an engineering company called Canadian Kellogg. They had offices in New York City, on Broadway, which she sometimes visited. She remembers that one day, they sent out a memo: the company was getting its first computer. It was so large that they had to remove part of the office roof to get the thing inside. The company’s employees stood on the street and watched. “So much has changed,” she says. It’s poignant: young Hazel bearing witness to a moment of great imagination half a century ago. Imagination is what Mississauga desperately needs, too, a vision to pull the city into its own uncharted future, rather than the bitterness and griping that are paralyzing it today.

Four days later, I’m sitting in the gallery with reporters from the Star and the Post and a few members of the public, all gathered to watch Mississauga council in session. The mayor appears in her seat in a bright pink blouse, the chain of office around her shoulders. After a vote to control smart phone use (the mayor sees it as a question of respect), Councillor Katie Mahoney withdraws a motion she had put on the agenda to search all councillors’ BlackBerries and computers to find out who leaked the birthday party tickets memo. The mayor rests her head in one palm, looking agitated. A debate breaks out over the role of an integrity commissioner who is investigating the leaks.

“Wasting tax dollars to hunt down a whistle-blower is wrong,” Councillor Eve Adams says, sparking a lengthy back-and-forth about accountability, citizenship, and the cost of the integrity commissioner’s report.

Finally, the mayor barks: “Let’s get on with the business! Gosh!”

Councillors then retreat behind closed doors, where they remain for several hours. The mayor misses her afternoon appearances. Days later, on the phone, she says: “We looked pretty sad out there.” Is this the worst time in council history? “It’s the saddest time,” she says, “because of the fact that we’ve been so successful, that we’ve never been in the press every day with negativity. And now….” The persecution is personal now, in a way it never has been.

“I think some of it is age discrimination,” she says. “I think it’s unfortunate that age is a question. It’s your mental and your physical health, especially your mental health, that should determine whether or not you’re capable of performing a function, not how long you’ve been on earth.”

Mississauga will endure without Hazel McCallion. It might even thrive under a leader concerned with more than fiscal responsibility, a leader who could make Mississauga a place of linked communities, not just malls and subdivisions, a place that’s truly more city than suburb. But what will become of McCallion, a woman for whom there appears to be no separation between work and life? She spends many evenings attending community events; sometimes, when she returns home, she makes herself an onion and cheese sandwich before bed. The McCallion family tries for Sunday dinners, but often it doesn’t happen. When she does finally retire, she says her pension will be meagre­—about $1,800 a month—because she started her paid career years after her other life as a volunteer, a businesswoman and a mother had ended.

“I will miss being with the people,” she says.

She tells me another story, about a night in 2005 when she returned from work late to her empty house. She opened her mail and found a letter on thick bond paper. She’d received the Order of Canada. She was shocked; she had no idea that she had even been put forward. Of course, she believes she has made a great contribution, and she was thrilled to be acknowledged. It was a momentous occasion. But what she remembers most about the night she opened the letter isn’t the shock or the excitement. She remembers that she was alone.