“Maybe Doug Ford isn’t used to hearing input from women”: A Q&A with Mississauga mayor Bonnie Crombie
On the cusp of a potential bid to be Ontario’s next Liberal leader, she talks about the province short-changing cities, her lock on the burbs and changing the lyrics to “O Canada”
Mayor Bonnie Crombie is on a hot streak. After years of her advocacy for the dissolution of Peel Region, Doug Ford finally answered her pleas, promising to make Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon independent cities by 2025. Now she’s considering a run for provincial Liberal leader, with a pre-campaign pledge to move the party toward the centre—the only way to defeat the Progressive Conservatives, she says.
Here, Crombie talks about the evils of privatized health care; the underfunded, overburdened public education system; and choosing the ultimate campaign theme song.
Good morning, Mayor Crombie. Or is it Potential Ontario Liberal Leader Crombie?
Well, you can call me Bonnie. I am still the mayor of Mississauga. I think the mayor title is an honorarium that carries with you even after retirement. When I would see Hazel at events, she was still Mayor McCallion. That actually got a bit confusing, so we started calling her Chancellor because she was Chancellor of Sheridan College. But, yeah, this is all formality. Bonnie is good.
Bonnie, you were the driving force behind the so-called “divorce” between Mississauga and Brampton. Now it’s finally happening, and you’re hightailing it to Queen’s Park.
Technically, we are still waiting on royal assent, so the divorce is not real until it’s real. But, you know, for me, this feels like the fulfilment of Hazel’s legacy. She resented the creation of Peel Region in the ’70s by former premier Bill Davis. She knew that Mississauga would be entering its growth phase and that its developing dollars would be used to subsidize infrastructure in Brampton and Caledon. And we’ve seen that over the past 50 years. So, yes, I have been supportive of what I called #Mexit. But, after it passes, it will be largely in the hands of legal experts and financial teams. Patrick Brown and I won’t be arm-wrestling over who owns what.
Right. But now you can finally push forward housing policy without all of the red tape. Don’t you want to stick around to see that through?
I’m not going anywhere. I have been very clear: as mayor, I will continue to attend council meetings and key events. We already have a housing strategy in place in Mississauga. What the divorce means is that the people who know the city best can make decisions on densification. As I have said many times, I don’t want boulevards of shiny glass towers with single bedroom units. If I decide to pursue the provincial Liberal leadership, it will be by mid-summer.
As recently as this past March, you said that you were “solely focused on the priorities of Mississauga.” Why the change of heart?
As a municipal politician, I get to speak with a lot of people. We are the level of government that has the most direct contact with the public. We actually live in the communities we serve. So I have this unique opportunity to take the temperature and see what people are struggling with. What I’ve found is that a lot of the changes people are asking for aren’t within my control as mayor. That’s why I started thinking about the Liberal leadership. And then I spoke with many party officials who convinced me to attend the Liberal convention in Ottawa this past May. That was the real tipping point.
This woman from Mississauga came up to me and told me that she wanted me to continue as her mayor. She talked about my transparency and my commitment to being both fiscally responsible and socially progressive. I said to her, “Okay, but what if I were able to take all of those qualities and apply them to towns and municipalities across the province?” She liked the idea. Now, I’ll spend more time speaking with more Ontarians to see if becoming leader is the right move. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past several weeks.
What have you been hearing?
Most frequently, it’s health care and how long the wait times continue to be despite the province suggesting that it has solved hallway medicine. There is a genuine fear that we are moving toward a privatized system, where people will have to bring both their OHIP card and their credit card. From parents, there is a lot of concern over education. They tell me that there are more than 30 kids per classroom, and they’re concerned that the government will push for even more online learning, which is not what is best for our children. And then, with younger people, it’s climate change. We have many programs in Mississauga that could be expanded across the province: the emphasis on greening our economy, electrifying our transit fleets, building charging stations and LEED Gold buildings. Our new waterfront neighbourhoods will be powered by district energy—easy, low-impact development that can be implemented anywhere. It just takes a certain amount of commitment.
And money. How will you pay for all this improvement while maintaining your status as a fiscal conservative?
I prefer the term “fiscally responsible,” for obvious reasons. But it’s really a question of priorities. I’m a big believer that you can’t be all things to all people. For example, take something we dealt with in Mississauga last winter, when we had a couple of big snowfalls. Afterward, the front of people’s homes were blocked by runoff from the snowplows, so they were calling for a very expensive program to deal with the problem. But, looking into it, we found that the machinery and other costs would be over $10 million and that we would be able to service only about 50 per cent of roads. We decided that wasn’t a good use of tax dollars and instead put aside money so that 1,000 residents who were either elderly or had health issues could apply for the city to do the shovelling for them.
Do you shovel your own driveway?
I do. I’m out there first thing in the morning, although sometimes my neighbours will do it for me. They’re amazing.
I like the snow example, but can you specifically explain how your budgeting would differ from the current provincial government?
It is extremely concerning that the government has posted a surplus while municipalities aren’t getting the funding they need to recover post-Covid. Our health care and education systems are underfunded and overburdened. I wonder if money is not being invested where it is needed, just so that the government can say it has a surplus. Is it possible that the transfer payments from the federal government aren’t being passed along?
This sounds like sizzling debate material. What else do you have in your anti-Ford arsenal?
A lot of what the Progressive Conservatives have done under Ford just doesn’t pass the smell test. For example, Peel Region passed a motion objecting to the construction of Highway 413, which will tear through the Greenbelt. What’s the drive to build a highway when a sufficient population won’t be there until 2050? We need funding for public transit now. Then there’s the opening of the Greenbelt to developers and the perception that members of the real estate community have personal relationships with Doug Ford—because they were invited to his children’s weddings and showers, for instance. Where was the public consultation with locals and members of First Nations? It’s the same thing with Ontario Place and the relocation of the Science Centre. There may be rationalizations behind these decisions, but without the proper process, we can’t know if they are good decisions.
Okay, now to the other side of the political spectrum. You have said that the Liberal party has swung too far to the left. Can you give an example?
This gets back to the impossibility of being all things to all people. For example, creating expensive programs like dental care and child care delivered at the provincial level: there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think they’re better funded by the federal government, as we have seen with the new affordable child care program. I’m a centrist, and that may be since mayors tend to be more practical about the delivery of services that benefit the largest number of people.
And yet, you recently put forward a motion to change the lyrics of “O Canada” from “Our home and native land” to “Our home on native land,” which sounds like exactly the kind of thing some centrists loathe.
Being the mayor of Mississauga, it is my responsibility to pay homage to and be mindful of our Indigenous roots. I take this very seriously. When I put forward that motion, a lot of people reached out and were not on board, thinking the idea was politically correct culture gone too far. There were others who thought that further consideration needed to be given to changing an anthem that is 150 years old. Then one of my staffers commented that the term “native” itself is pejorative in this context, so maybe we should be considering additional changes to the lyrics.
The Progressive Conservatives have had a pretty strong lock on the burbs for the past few years. Do you worry that the voters who supported you as mayor may not back you at the provincial level?
No. I think it’s the opposite, and that’s one of the reasons that the Ford Conservatives are concerned about me as a potential opponent. I am very well known in the GTA. I’ve earned a reputation as someone who is reliable, whether it’s downtown or the larger region. That said, the Liberals need to be more than just a party of urban seats.
How does a big-city power broker make the necessary inroads?
My background is important. I’m the daughter of Polish immigrants who came to Canada looking for a better life. My father had a farm in the lower Ottawa Valley, where I spent a lot of time, so I understand rural life. And my former husband was very connected to the Stratford region. These are places that used to be strong Liberal territory.
Does Justin Trudeau’s liberal-elite vibe present a problem in this respect?
Not at all. The prime minister is a friend, so I’m not going to make any negative comments about him. I would say that the Ontario Liberal Party is quite distinct from its federal counterpart in terms of the issues we are focused on.
Have you considered a campaign theme song?
Oh, goodness. I haven’t even thought about that. During my first run for mayor, we used Alicia Keys’s “Girl on Fire.” I also love “Unstoppable” by Sia, but that’s pretentious. Normally when I walk into an event, the song is “Thunder!”
You mean AC/DC’s metal anthem “Thunderstruck”?
Yes. I’m a heavy rocker. Can’t you tell?
What do you do for fun?
I’m a very active person. I golf, I play tennis, I ski, I rock climb—like, actual rocks, not just climbing gyms. I love to cook and entertain, though I admit I have less time for that these days.
You and Ford have sometimes had a combative relationship. Is there a particular butting of heads that stands out?
I may rankle the premier because of my very direct approach. Much like Hazel, I am a no-nonsense kind of person. I don’t hide or couch my opinions. I will let you know where I stand. So it’s not any one interaction with him. Maybe the premier isn’t used to hearing very direct input and pushback from women.
Of your current situation, Ford has said you shouldn’t have “your butt on both sides of the fence.” Thoughts?
Well, first I would say that that’s a bit hypocritical since he was running for mayor and leader of the Progressive Conservatives while he was a councillor. But that’s not really the point. I take my job as mayor very seriously, and I don’t make trite observations. Ontarians are telling me that leadership is something I need to consider, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m not sure I want to comment on my backside.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.