Hazel McCallion is already five hours into her day when I show up at her modest two-storey Mississauga home, expecting literally to get down in the weeds with her.
The Mississauga mayor’s assistant had scheduled a gardening date for the two of us at 10:30 a.m. and I arrive in casual clothes and sneakers with a pair of gardening gloves in my bag. I’m certain there has been some miscommunication when the 93-year-old Ms. McCallion answers the door. She’s dressed in a version of the Murphy Brown meets Jane Austen outfit she routinely wears to council meetings: a loud turquoise jacket, a greyish blue pair of trousers hiked up just below her bust and a white feminine blouse with a cameo brooch at the scalloped collar.
She leads me through the house she bought in 1987 and into the expansive backyard. The swimming pool, in the back, is ringed by an established perennial garden: It has ornamental grasses, cotton candy-coloured peonies, mature evergreens and a magnolia tree. I ask if there’s any weeding to be done, flowers to be watered.
“I was up at 5:30 this morning. I did all the work before,” Ms. McCallion says gruffly, after we sit down at one of two patio tables under the gazebo at the front of her yard. Luckily, I’ve already had tea and a muffin because she doesn’t offer me anything.
Before I’d arrived, she let out her long-haired German Shepherd Missy (yes, named after the city she governs), cleaned the pool, tended to the garden, disposed of the carcasses of three rabbits Missy had killed and attended a breakfast meeting with the CEO of Enersource, Mississauga’s local electricity distributor.
Old habits die hard and the 5:30 a.m. wake up calls will almost certainly follow her into retirement. This fall’s municipal election is the first in 36 years that Ms. McCallion won’t be running in, although her calendar suggests she’s in campaign mode. She says that even her three children, one of whom lives in the neighbourhood, have to call her scheduling assistant if they want to make plans with her.
“I carry on as if the election was tomorrow. What a lot of politicians do is to be inactive for the first part of their term and when an election’s coming they show up at every event,” she says. “It makes no difference that I’m retiring as of November the 30th.”
She hasn’t campaigned in a traditional sense since the early nineties but has easily won every election with a strong mandate, even the most recent one when a conflict of interest case was looming. (In 2011, a judge ruled she had a “real and apparent” conflict when, in council, she supported a bid for a downtown convention centre project in which her son was involved, but noted she did not break the letter of the law so she stayed in office. She’s survived two other conflict accusations.)
On a recent Saturday, Ms. McCallion spent eight hours glad-handing at a halal food festival, the Healthy Living Expo and the opening of both a community pool and a farmer’s market. It seems even tedious weekend ribbon cuttings develop an appeal after you’ve been doing them for 12 terms – although she could do without all the photographs.
“The worst thing that ever happened was when they put cameras on phones,” Ms. McCallion says, rubbing her fingers over the topography of her wrinkled left temple. “I get stopped on the street. I go to these events. I go to the festivals, and I can’t get around to the booths because it’s picture, picture, picture.”
And that kind of instant recognition presents a serious challenge for those vying to replace her: A 12-term mayoralty has bred apathy in the city – or at least that’s what voter turnout suggests. While most Mississaugans recognize her, not many can claim to have voted for her – or her opponents for that matter. In the last five municipal elections, an average of 25.5 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots.
In 1978, Ms. McCallion inherited a city of fewer than 290,000 people – a collection of mostly rural communities west of Toronto that had amalgamated four years earlier. Under her leadership, the city grew to 752,000. She courted developers with vast tracts of empty land and they, in turn, built a skyline that many travellers mistake for Toronto during their descent into Pearson International Airport. For decades, the building boom filled Mississauga’s coffers with development fees, which kept property tax increases extremely low, and made Ms. McCallion a very popular mayor.