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At 101, and After 36 Years as Mayor, ‘Hurricane Hazel’ Is Still a Force in Canada


MISSISSAUGA, Ontario — On Valentine’s Day, she first took a call from Justin Trudeau. Next, she joined Ontario’s premier at the unveiling of a new commuter train line to be named in her honor.

By 4:30 p.m. that day — her 101st birthday — Hazel McCallion had arrived at shopping mall, where she took a seat in a rocking chair behind a velvet rope at an exhibition about her life and began accepting bouquets and tributes from dozens of fans.

Slightly taller than five feet, Ms. McCallion commanded attention from towering well wishers, just as she has commanded respect in Canadian politics for decades.

She has been a force in Canadian politics for longer than just about anyone alive, even though she began her career in middle age.

She mounted her first campaign for elected office in 1966, five years before Mr. Trudeau, the prime minister, was born.

When in 1978 she was first elected mayor of Mississauga, a Toronto suburb, her City Hall office looked out on cows.

By the time she left office, 36 years later at the age of 93, the fields had been replaced with condo towers, a college campus, a transit hub and shopping centers in what is now Canada’s seventh largest city, granting her a moniker she isn’t so fond of, “the queen of sprawl.”

She prefers the nickname “Hurricane Hazel,” an ode to her brash style — though a devastating storm with the same name, which killed about 80 people around Toronto in 1954, was still fresh in local memory when she earned it.

Just months into her first term, she gained a national profile for managing a mass evacuation of close to 220,000 residents after a train derailment in 1979.

The dramatic event was ordained the “Mississauga Miracle” because of the success of the emergency response after two-dozen rail cars transporting hazardous chemicals erupted in flames at an intersection in the city.

No one died, and one of the few people injured was Ms. McCallion, who sprained her ankle rushing around to work on the evacuation. She had to be carried into some meetings by emergency responders.

“A job was to be done,” Ms. McCallion said, “and I did it.”

As mayor, she was known for an uncompromising leadership style, a take-no-prisoners bluntness and a political independence that meant she never ran under the banner of any party.

“It’s not like she’s had consistent positions all these years,” said Tom Urbaniak, a professor of political science at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia and the author of a book about Mississauga’s sprawl during Ms. McCallion’s time in office. “She was very, very pragmatic and that was part of her political recipe.”

Her hockey skills were also renowned — she played professionally — and in the political arena, they translated into a willingness to deliver bruising checks on opponents.

“Everybody sort of genuflected to Hazel because she was this little dynamo,” said David Peterson, a former Liberal premier of Ontario between 1985 and 1990. “She’s a team player, if she’s running the team. But I can’t imagine having Hazel in a cabinet,” he added. “She’s not a comfortable follower.”

She was 57 when she became Mississauga’s mayor, at a time when there were few women holding significant political office in Canada.

But sitting for an interview in the living room of her home in Mississauga a few days after her 101st birthday celebrations, Ms. McCallion was characteristically curt in dismissing discussion of any of the sexism she may have encountered.

“I’ve had very strong male support because I’m independent,” she said. “And they know that I am not a wallflower.”

In her successful first campaign for Mississauga mayor, her opponent, the incumbent, regularly repeated patronizing references to her gender, which helped rally support for her. She defeated him and never lost an election after that, coasting to victory in most subsequent elections by outsize margins.

Her home in Mississauga is decorated with the mementos and celebrity photos one might expect from such a long political career. Less typically, hockey jerseys with numbers commemorating her 99th, 100th and 101st birthdays are hung over the spiral banister across from her dining room.

Among all the objects, she said the one she holds most dear is a clock from her hometown, Port Daniel, on the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec. The youngest of five children, Ms. McCallion was born in a farmhouse and grew up during the Great Depression.

“When you have to leave home at 14 and you’re a Depression kid, you have to become completely independent,” she said. “You don’t call home for money.”

She spent her high school years studying in Montreal and Quebec City, and credits her mother, a nurse, for instilling in her the confidence to take on the world. She later finished secretarial school, got a job managing an engineering firm’s office in Montreal — and started playing professional hockey for five dollars a game.

She played from 1940 to 1942 in a women’s league with three teams and was known for her speed on the ice. She had to get two bottom teeth replaced following a stick to the mouth in a particularly rough game. In her 2014 memoir, “Hurricane Hazel: A Life With Purpose,” she wrote, “Considering the dental cost, I guess I broke even on my professional hockey career.”

The engineering firm relocated her to Toronto, which had no women’s league, so she stopped playing hockey for pay, but continued to skate, fast, until about three years ago. She left the firm after more than two decades to help her husband manage his printing business, and she became more involved in the business community of Streetsville, Ontario, at the time an independent suburb of Toronto.

She said she was frustrated by the boys’ club running the town and was appointed to its planning board, eventually chairing it. She served as mayor of Streetsville from 1970 to 1973, before it was amalgamated with Mississauga.

Her husband, Sam McCallion, died in 1997. The couple had three children. “I had a wonderful husband,” Ms. McCallion said. “He stood back. He looked after his business, and he let me look after the politics, so we worked extremely well together.”

As Mississauga grew rapidly during her time as mayor, her tenure was not without its detractors. She became known for stamping out expressions of dissent at City Hall, with the political horse trading occurring in private, which made for blandly accordant council meetings, said Mr. Urbaniak, the political scientist.

“Some of the serious conversation and debate unfortunately happened behind closed doors in order to try to present this unified front,” Mr. Urbaniak said. “It seemed a little eerie.”

Perhaps a product of so many decades spent in politics, Ms. McCallion tends to talk in aphorisms and mantras: No decision is worse than a bad one, make everyday count, negativity is bad for your health, have a purpose. And her favorite: “Do your homework.”

One of the rare times she seemed to have not done her homework led to conflict-of-interest allegations and a subsequent court case that was dismissed by a judge in 2013.

Ms. McCallion claimed to not have known the extent of her son’s ownership stake in a real estate company that proposed to develop land near City Hall into an upscale hotel, convention center and condominiums. The project was scrapped, with the land used instead for the Hazel McCallion campus at Sheridan College.

“Unfortunately, my son, he had heard me talk so often that we needed a convention center in the city core,” she said. “He attempted to do it and tried to convince others to support him.”

In her memoir, Ms. McCallion insists that she always put the interests of residents first and denounces the multimillion dollar cost to taxpayers for a judicial inquiry “so that my political opponents could try to extract their pound of flesh from me.”

Since retiring as mayor in 2014, she has kept an exhausting schedule — rising at 5:30 a.m., supporting campaigns for local causes and making frequent stops at the exhibition, or as she calls it, “my museum,” to meet with community groups.

People continue to seek out her presence and her political blessing, including Bonnie Crombie, whom she endorsed — some say anointed — to take her place as mayor.

Ms. McCallion spends a good amount of time at the exhibit, one leg crossed over the other in her rocking chair, receiving visitors who thank her, she said, “for creating a great city.”

“If you build a sound foundation,” she said, “then nobody can ruin it.”


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