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As mayor for 36 years, she read the changing moods of her city and transformed it, distinguishing herself as a master of realpolitik

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Shahid Rassam's painting of Hazel McCallion was unveiled in 2012, during her 12th and final term as mayor of Mississauga.

Hazel McCallion was fond of telling people that she built her city’s core out of a hayfield.

The well-worn line summed up the two things most people knew about Mississauga’s long-time leader: that she had ruled the suburban metropolis for nearly all its history and that she was a masterful communicator with a natural gift for punchy sound-bites.

But behind that larger-than-life persona, Ms. McCallion was at heart a pragmatic political tactician. She changed direction in major policy areas – particularly on suburban sprawl, the predominant preoccupation of her mayoralty – and had an uncanny knack for sensing which way the winds of popular opinion were blowing.

She spent most of her decades-long rule allowing Mississauga to develop as a sea of low-density tract housing and massive arterial roads, before reversing course during her last two terms and promoting pedestrian-friendly development and improved public transit.

As Tom Urbaniak, author of a biography on Ms. McCallion, once told The Globe and Mail: “She knows how to get out in front of a parade before it’s even formed up.”

That prowess, combined with a favourable fiscal environment, allowed her to rule Mississauga for 36 years, often with little more than token opposition.

To city staff, she was “Madam Mayor,” a leader who seemed to fully embody the office she held. To her supporters, she was “Hurricane Hazel,” a nod to her strength of personality and political invincibility. To critics, a more common epithet was “Queen of Sprawl,” the dominant characteristic of the city she led.

Her final years in office, meanwhile, were overshadowed by a failed land deal that stood to make her oldest son a millionaire. A judicial inquiry admonished her for using her public office to push the private project, which put her in a conflict of interest.

Ms. McCallion died peacefully in her sleep at her home in Mississauga early Sunday morning.

She leaves her children, Peter, Paul and Linda, and granddaughter Erika. She was predeceased by her husband, Sam.

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Ms. McCallion with various Ontario premiers over her political career: Bill Davis in 1975, Mike Harris in 1998, Kathleen Wynne in 2014 and Doug Ford in 2018.The Canadian Press, The Globe and Mail

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For her 100th birthday in 2021, Ms. McCallion was feted virtually by Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie and members of city council during a general committee meeting.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Born Hazel Mary Muriel Journeaux on Feb. 14, 1921 in Port-Daniel, a village on the south coast of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, she was the youngest in an anglophone farm family of three girls and two boys. Her parents were Herbert Journeaux, the grandson of a Huguenot immigrant from Jersey, and Amanda Maud Journeaux (née Travers), of Scottish descent.

Ms. McCallion would later muse that her healthy, hard-working childhood might explain her longevity. It certainly taught her frugality, as she helped handle the farm’s expenses and balance the family’s books.

She left in her teens to attend high school in Quebec City and, later, secretarial college in Montreal. During the Second World War, she worked as office manager at engineering firm Canadian Kellogg in Toronto. At the same time, she joined the Anglican Young Peoples’ Association and rapidly rose through the ranks to become national president. As Mr. Urbaniak wrote in his book, she was an efficient organizer, running the association like a business and hectoring subordinates who did not meet her expectations.

It was through this organization that she met Sam McCallion. The couple married in September, 1951. Later that year, they decamped midtown Toronto for Streetsville, a small town surrounded by farmland west of the city. There, they set up small businesses – a drycleaner and a printing company – and had three children. Ms. McCallion became active in local politics when she was appointed to a seat on the planning commission.

Elected deputy reeve in 1967, she became mayor of Streetsville two years later. When the town was amalgamated into Mississauga, she was elected to its first council.

At the time, the urban reform movement was in full swing in southern Ontario, demanding pedestrian-friendly planning and the preservation of historic streetscapes. Ms. McCallion identified with these sentiments and joined the reform wing of Mississauga’s council, which butted heads with politicians who took a more laissez-faire attitude toward developers.

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Streetsville, Ont., as seen from the air in 1972. Streetsville would be annexed to the growing suburban city of Mississauga two years later.Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail

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NOVEMBER 8, 1977 -- MISSISSAUGA POLITICIAN -- Councillor Hazel McCallion, former mayor of Streetsville, Ontario and currently member of the Mississauga and Peel Regional Councils, November 8, 1977. Mrs. McCallion began her political career in 1964 when she was named as a new member of the Streetsville Planning Board; she served as Chair of the Board in 1966 and again in 1968.†Later that same year, she became Deputy Reeve of Streetsville. She was appointed Reeve, and then elected as Mayor of Streetsville in 1970, serving until December, 1973. When the Region of Peel was established in 1974, Mrs. McCallion was elected to the Mississauga and Peel Regional Councils. She served two terms as a Councillor prior to her mayoral campaign in 1978. By the time she was elected Mayor on November 13, 1978, she had sat on virtually every committee at the Region of Peel and the City of Mississauga. Photo by Barrie Davis / The Globe and Mail.

Originally published Nov. 4, 1978, page A11.

Ms. McCallion in 1977, when she was a member of the Mississauga and Peel Regional Councils.Barrie Davis/The Globe and Mail

After two terms, she ran successfully for mayor in 1978, knocking off incumbent Ron Searle. When she ascended to power, however, Ms. McCallion jettisoned reformist politics and opened up vast tracts of land to be covered with subdivisions. Her reasons were manifold, but Mr. Urbaniak suggests that she realized two things: first, that battling developers was politically dangerous and second, that Mississauga residents were inherently opposed to the sort of dense, infill developments in established neighbourhoods that would have been necessary to build New Urbanist communities.

Luckily for Ms. McCallion, the city had masses of empty land to satisfy developers’ thirst to build subdivisions, while keeping growth out of already built areas. It also produced an ideal fiscal situation: levies on developers filled municipal coffers, allowing the city to quickly pay down its debt and, eventually, institute a property tax freeze.

Mississauga took shape under Ms. McCallion as a city of suburban tract housing, slab high-rise apartment buildings and strip plazas, criss-crossed by expressways. Attempts to build a city centre, in that oft-referenced hayfield around the Square One shopping centre, followed a plan that could have been pulled from Le Corbusier, with wide arterial roads girdling institutional buildings and high-rise towers surrounded by parks.

But Ms. McCallion’s popularity only grew. In part, acquiescence toward developers ensured local politics would be a sleepy affair; in part, the city’s fiscal situation kept residents pleased. Her dominating personality helped, too.

At no time was this more evident than when, on Nov. 10, 1979, a Canadian Pacific freight train, pulling cars of chlorine and various flammable substances, derailed near Mavis Road and exploded. Ms. McCallion helped ensure evacuation centres were opened and took the lead role in briefing reporters on the situation, alternately praising first responders for their work and hectoring other levels of government for not enforcing tougher transportation safety standards.

This persona would become her trademark at public appearances, whether dealing with city councillors, journalists or members of the public: those who deferred to her would be lauded; detractors would be dismissed as ill-informed or incompetent, often with the use of clever one-liners.

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Jan. 19, 1981: Ms. McCallion holds the Grange report on the 1979 Mississauga derailment.Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

Over time, she also ensured that as much power as possible was consolidated in her hands, abolishing various public boards and refusing to allow individual city councillors to take on specific areas of influence – such as the budget – as they did in other cities.

The result was a dearth of opposition for most of her rule.

In 1982, she was convicted of breaking the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act for backing the release of land that she owned for development. Nonetheless, she defeated a comeback attempt by Ron Searle with 71 per cent of the vote. In 1988, Ms. McCallion helped push Larry Taylor, the only councillor who had openly opposed her attempts to speed up development, off council by sending a letter to his constituents days before the election accusing him of lying.

Ms. McCallion’s dominance would not be challenged until 2006. That year, outspoken former Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish was elected to council and set about taking the mayor to task. Other councillors, previously reluctant to criticize the long-time leader, seemed to find their voices as well.

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Oct. 27, 2009: Councillor Carolyn Parish and Ms. McCallion sit in a council meeting at City Hall.Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail

The most contentious issue was the land deal. Peter McCallion and his company, World Class Developments, wanted to build a convention centre and luxury hotel near city hall. Ms. McCallion was involved, pressuring the owners of the land to sell to her son’s company, witnessing important legal documents and intervening to sort out a dispute between his shareholders. When the deal fell through, the mayor tasked a close friend to negotiate a $4-million payout to WCD.

Ms. McCallion didn’t deny her involvement: she said she was merely helping to advance a project that would benefit the city. Opposition councillors didn’t see it that way. Neither did a judicial inquiry that probed the matter and demanded an overhaul of ethics guidelines to ensure no politician would do the same. Nonetheless, voters returned her for a 12th and final term in 2010, in the midst of the inquiry.

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Oct. 25, 2010: Ms. McCallion celebrates her election victory with flowers as her son Peter, left, looks on in the background.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Aside from the scandal, Ms. McCallion’s final years in office were dominated by another about-face in policy. The mayor reverted to the reformism she had espoused early in her career, championing public transit, new bicycle lanes and denser development. The change was no doubt motivated in part by the desire for better planning that swept North America in the early 2000s. But it was also a response to Mississauga’s new reality: after decades of sprawling, the city had exhausted all its empty land and had to look inward to accommodate new growth.

The modernist towers-in-parks plan for the city centre was thrown out, replaced by an urbanist blueprint envisioning more street-front retail, walkable streets and the replacement of parking lots with offices and condominiums. The site of the former Lakeview Generating Station, along the city’s waterfront, is subject to a similarly urbanist redevelopment plan.

Ms. McCallion also secured provincial funding for a bus rapid transit line along Highway 403. The first phase opened in 2014, the year she left office.

She spent much of her final two terms pushing forward a plan to build a north-south LRT across her city along Hurontario Street, connecting Port Credit to Square One to the adjoining city of Brampton in the north. In contrast to neighbouring Toronto, where city council’s dithering on transit – mayors and councillors repeatedly changed their minds on various projects – led to lengthy delays getting anything built, Ms. McCallion successfully maintained political consensus around the Hurtontario LRT. Under her, city council never wavered, and she persistently pushed Queen’s Park to pay for the project.

Even as the clock ticked down on her final term, Ms. McCallion threw her political weight around to get the LRT. She made a point of courting Premier Kathleen Wynne, sitting in her box at the 2013 Liberal leadership convention. She gave her political backing to provincial transit agency Metrolinx, and would frequently tell reporters how badly the province needed more transit. When then Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak pitched a plan to cancel all LRTs and put the money into expanding Toronto’s subway, Ms. McCallion wasted no time slamming him as “very confused,” and said he had failed to do his “homework” before crafting his transit plan.

This work paid off: in 2015, just a few months after Ms. McCallion left office, Ms. Wynne’s government announced it would build the Hurontario LRT and pay the full cost.

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April 21, 2015: Ms. McCallion stands beside Charles Sousa, then minister of finance, at the Mississauga City Centre bus terminal, where they announced full funding for the Hurontario LRT.J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

Ms. McCallion also played an active role in setting up her succession, encouraging Bonnie Crombie – a former federal Liberal MP with whom she was close – to run for an open city council seat in 2011. In the 2014 mayoral race, when the polls showed Ms. Crombie tied with former federal cabinet minister Steve Mahoney, Ms. McCallion publicly endorsed Ms. Crombie. Ms. Crombie won with 64 per cent of the vote.

After leaving office, Ms. McCallion did not slow down.

In early 2015, she became a special adviser to the principal of the University of Toronto Mississauga, tasked with helping develop a new master’s program in urban innovation and development, and to create a course on how to be a politician. Ms. McCallion also took a seat on the board of real estate developer Kaneff. In 2022, she received a three-year extension to her term on the board that oversees Pearson International Airport.

As chair of the Greenbelt Council, she backed Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s decision to open up formerly-protected land to new suburban development – a move that will allow for even more sprawl on the edges of the Greater Toronto Area, rather than compelling denser, more urbanist neighbourhoods. Ms. McCallion’s support, in early 2023, was both an about-face for the council, which had previously tried to safeguard the Greenbelt from development, and for Ms. McCallion personally, who had previously seemed to be moving away from her long-time support of low-density development.

Monarch-like and tough-as-nails, Madam Mayor would always be seen by her supporters as a principled leader with a firm backbone, the incarnation of a city with few landmarks. But the truth was much more complicated: Far from developing Mississauga with an overriding vision, Ms. McCallion’s talent was for sensing the direction of shifting political winds and responding accordingly. From crusading reformist to fiscal hawk to urbanist, her mayoralty and Mississauga’s development changed significantly over time.

Her legacy is less that of a New Urbanist, but rather that of a masterful practitioner of a different doctrine made famous in the 1970s: realpolitik.

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Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

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