MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Hazel McCallion, who developed a legacy of feisty advocacy during more than three decades as mayor of one of Canada's fastest-growing cities, died Sunday morning after a brief bout with pancreatic cancer. She was 101.
Known affectionately as "Hurricane Hazel," the longtime mayor of Mississauga, Ont., was an outspoken political powerhouse who earned respect from fellow politicians across the spectrum.
Ontario Premier and long-time friend Doug Ford announced her death on Sunday morning, saying she died peacefully at her Mississauga home earlier in the day. Family friend Jim Murray later confirmed McCallion was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer around Christmas.
Ford described McCallion as the definition of a public servant, having led the transformation of the city west of Toronto into a major urban centre.
Speaking in his office, Ford recalled McCallion as "a mentor" and "very close friend" who would always give advice she believed in whether he agreed or not.
"There's no politician in the country that really understood the grassroots, the people more than Hazel did," Ford said of her regular appearances at community centres, places of worship or local events.
"I went to so many events with Hazel and, make no mistake about it, she was the star of the show no matter who she was with."
During a recent visit, Ford said McCallion gave him a bobblehead figure of herself in a Formula 1 racecar, which she had signed "To my favourite premier, Love Hazel."
He said McCallion's family has been offered a state funeral and his office is in talks with the city of Mississauga and its mayor to offer support.
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 support her campaign to give the money to a charity or cultural fund.
She ultimately decided to bow out of municipal politics at 93, leaving the mayor's office 36 years after she was first elected.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among the dozens of public figures offering tributes in the hours after her death, saying he spoke with McCallion just 10 days ago.
“Over the past couple of decades I had many opportunities to speak with her, to learn from her, to get advice from her,” Trudeau said in a brief statement in a hangar at the Ottawa International Airport before boarding a flight to Quebec City.
“It’s hard to believe she’s gone because she has been such a presence in Mississauga, across Ontario and across Canada for so many years.”
Bonnie Crombie, McCallion's successor as Mississauga's mayor, called her the city's matriarch and said she served as an inspiration for women in politics.
"Hurricane Hazel inspired countless women to speak out and have their voices heard, to take the leap into politics and demand a seat at the decision-making table," Crombie said in a statement.
Crombie said McCallion continued to live a life of "service before self" long after her time in politics, whether that was by raising funds to build a new hospital, supporting the local arts community or helping to ensure seniors could age with grace.
But long-time city resident Paul Junor saw her legacy differently, writing on Facebook that her mayoral term was "defined by many controversial and murky decisions she made ... in her pursuit of the economic, business and commercial interests of this municipality."
"Love her or hate her, she left an indelible impact," said Junor.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said he had a decades-long friendship with McCallion and spoke with her in recent weeks.
"There were moments with Hazel where not only was she one of the most loveable people in her own way, but she was tough as nails," Tory said.
"The concept of retirement to her was something that was virtually unknown because she carried on even right up to the time of her becoming ill, serving on boards and contributing to the public scene in many different ways."
Murray, a longtime friend and family spokesman, said work was always central to McCallion's life. He believes the people of Mississauga should thank McCallion's children for giving most of their time with their mother to the city, where her schedule was often filled even on weekends
A private family funeral is being planned in addition to the public memorial, with details for both still being finalized, he said.
"A very, very unique individual she was, the likes of which in this country very few people will ever see again," said Murray.
Back when she was a rookie mayor, McCallion cemented her hard-working reputation after she injured 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.
Two years later, a Superior Court judge found 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 came to light 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 vote.
She turned down invitations from the Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats to run for them federally or provincially, saying politics was 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 Ford in the 2018 campaign.
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 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. Sam McCallion died of Alzheimer's in 1997.
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 pricier 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.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2023.
Allison Jones and Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press