MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Hazel McCallion, who led one of Canada's largest cities into her 90's, died Sunday morning, leaving behind a legacy of feisty advocacy and more than three decades of nearly unchallenged leadership.
Known affectionately as "Hurricane Hazel," the longtime mayor of Mississauga, Ont., may have been diminutive, but was an outspoken political powerhouse.
Word of McCallion's death came in a Sunday morning statement from Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who said she died peacefully at her home in Mississauga early Sunday morning at the age of 101.
Ford said McCallion, who he called a "dear friend and mentor," was the definition of a public servant, having led the transformation of the city west of Toronto into a major urban centre.
"Hazel will be missed dearly by the people that she so faithfully served," Ford said. "Her city, and our province, are better places because of the amazing life of Hazel McCallion."
McCallion was widely respected by other politicians, even many of those with whom she did not mince words, and was even more revered by constituents, who voted her into office with landslide victories for 12 successive terms.
She garnered more than 90 per cent of the mayoral vote several terms in a row despite not campaigning for decades, instead asking those who wanted to make a donation to her campaign to give the money to a charity or a cultural fund.
McCallion ultimately decided to bow out at age 93, leaving the mayor's office 36 years after she was first elected. On her 80th birthday she attributed "toughness" from her rural upbringing in the Gaspe, Que., region to her longevity and political success.
"You've got to stand up for what you believe in, which I always have," McCallion said at the time.
Back when she was still a rookie mayor, McCallion cemented her hard-working reputation injuring her ankle while helping evacuate 200,000 residents from their homes after a train derailed and leaked chlorine gas. She continued to hobble to update briefings despite the sprain.
McCallion's main political speed bump came toward the end of her career in the form of both a judicial inquiry and a conflict-of-interest court case stemming from a failed multimillion-dollar development contract involving her son's company.
The inquiry judge found in 2011 that McCallion's actions in promoting the company amounted to a conflict of interest, but the report didn't say the mayor breached the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.
A Superior Court judge found two years later that McCallion may have shown willful blindness and defied common sense when she voted on the development deal, but it wasn't enough to warrant ousting her from office.
The scandal had come to light years prior to the 2010 municipal election and she took a huge hit in the polls — relatively speaking. She still won 76 per cent of the votes and her closest challenger came nowhere close.
She turned down invitations from the Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats to run for them federally or provincially, saying politics is far more satisfying at the local level.
"The whole job of being mayor is a wonderful experience," McCallion said in a 2006 interview. "You're building a community, you're helping people, you're making it possible for people to live in a community with all the services they require; I mean that, to me, is satisfaction.''
McCallion also supported other politicians across party lines, endorsing Kathleen Wynne as Liberal premier of Ontario in 2014 but backing her Progressive Conservative opponent Doug Ford in the 2018 vote.
The former mayor would meet and speak with Ford as premier, but ultimately turned down a formal appointment as special adviser, with a $150,000 salary, saying she was too busy.
Under McCallion's watch, Mississauga was debt free and one of the best-run cities fiscally.
The no-nonsense politician spoke her mind when advocating for the interests of her citizens and often the rights of municipalities in general.
At a mayors' meeting with provincial ministers following the 2003 blackout that left much of the eastern seaboard in the dark, instead of asking a question McCallion took the mic and blasted the ministers for a deteriorating relationship between the two levels of government.
"I'm sick and tired of finger-pointing," she said to a standing ovation. "Smarten up. Tell the premier he's out to lunch."
In 1995 she said that then-Bloc Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard should be charged with treason for complicating a recession with a sovereignty debate. And in 2001 she stood her ground surrounded by dozens of hecklers angry over remarks about immigrants she said were taken out of context, telling them they would not be getting an apology.
McCallion was hailed as a hero in 2006 during a police standoff involving a distraught man who was threatening to kill himself. The five-hour standoff came to a peaceful end when McCallion appeared and demanded the man stand down so police, paramedics and fire personnel could attend to more important matters.
Born Hazel Journeaux in Port Daniel, Que., in 1921, her father owned a fishing and canning company. Her mother was a homemaker and ran the family farm.
After high school she attended business secretarial school in Quebec City and Montreal. After working there for a time, she was transferred by Canadian Kellogg company to Toronto.
She met and married her husband, Sam McCallion, and they had three children: Peter, Paul and Linda. In 1997, Sam McCallion died of Alzheimer's disease.
A former professional women's hockey player in Montreal in the 1930s, McCallion was known to keep a pair of skates and a hockey stick in the trunk of her car in case of a pick-up game.
Her political career began in 1967 when she was elected chairman of the planning board in Streetsville, part of Mississauga.
As mayor, McCallion used lower taxes to attract businesses from the city's more pricey neighbour, Toronto, creating jobs and helping the city grow.
Mississauga is now the third largest city in Ontario and the sixth largest in Canada, with a population of more than 700,000 as of 2021.
In 2016, Ontario proclaimed McCallion's birthday, Feb. 14, as Hazel McCallion Day.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2023.
Allison Jones and Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press