From hay fields to metropolis: Hazel McCallion reflects on her career as mayor of Mississauga

She's not the longest serving mayor in the country — that honour falls to Crow Head Newfoundland's John Hamlyn.

She's not the most famous mayor in the country — for a lot of unfortunate reasons, I think that title goes to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

But Mississauga's Hazel McCallion is certainly one of Canada's most revered and respected mayors.

The 93 year-old — affectionately known as Hurricane Hazel — is retiring this year after a mayoral reign that has spanned 35 years. To put that into perspective, she's outlasted nine prime ministers and eight Ontario premiers.

"Working hard, being honest and straight forward with the citizens," McCallion said is the secret to her longevity, in an interview last week with Yahoo Canada News.

"Trying to run a city like a business. Paying for things up front. Trying to stay out of debt."

McCallion entered politics in 1970 following a career in business, community activism and even a stint as a professional hockey player. (She still laces up the skates when she has the time.)

Ironically, her first election campaigns were fought on a platform of curbing development. Back then, in the 70's, Mississauga was just an amalgamation of a small group of towns separated by farmland with a population of only about 250,000. Under the stewardship of McCallion, it's grown to Canada's sixth largest city with a population of 734,000.

Today, the growth is something McCallion lists as one of her legacies.

"[I'm most proud of] building a city for people. Taking it from a rural bedroom community into a self-sustained city," she said.

"When I look at the city core that was a hay field when I was elected mayor. There's a lot of satisfaction when you see what's happening. There was a hay field, Square One [Mall] was there and an office building opposite," she reminisced looking out her office window.

"[We now have] an economic base that is exceptional. 53 of the Fortune 500 head offices are in our city. None of those were here when I took over as mayor. My job has been promotion, promotion, promotion."

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Because of that success, her 'tell like it is' persona and her longevity, McCallion's popularity has been nothing short of extraordinary.

She earned 91 per cent and 76 per cent of the total votes in the 2006 and 2010 mayoral elections, respectively. Moreover, she's been named to the Order of Canada, the Order of Merit in Germany and has been featured on the Rick Mercer show, CNN and even the Regis and Kelly show in the United States.

It hasn't all been roses, however: McCallion has been the subject of three conflict of interest suits, the two most recent with regard to her son's development proposal for a downtown Mississauga hotel.

According to the Globe and Mail, a 2011 a judicial inquiry found that "Ms. McCallion had a 'real and apparent' conflict of interest when she supported a land deal for the...downtown hotel proposed by her son."

She was however deemed to have not violated the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act (MCIA) and was therefore allowed to stay in office. A 2012 suit was dismissed.

McCallion maintains that she did nothing wrong and argues that the MCIA rules need to be tightened up so that it's not used by people with political agendas to oust sitting politicians.

"The conflict of interest act in Ontario is outdated. None of the governments recognized that it needs to be changed so that it doesn't open the door for anybody on a very frivolous thing can charge you with conflict of interest," she said.

"Otherwise you're not going to get people run for local office. You're just not."

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As for retirement, McCallion isn't sure what she's going to do with all her spare time.

She says she's not much of a vacation person and she's not much for relaxing at home — even in her nineties she's gotten accustomed to attending at least a half dozen events every weekend.

What you can be sure of, however, is that she has no intention of disappearing from the public policy debates.

"It's a case of deciding what I want to get involved in both on a voluntary basis as well [as otherwise]," she said.

"I am going to continue to fight for more authority for municipalities and more sustainable funding. I think, through my experience, I think what ever government is elected in Ontario, I will be approaching them on issues concerning local government."

In other words, she'll be one of those individuals who retire but refuse to expire.

Would you expect anything else from Hurricane Hazel?

Interview Extras:

Hazel on why she never ran provincially or federally:

Hazel on being called Hurricane:

About her celebrity status in Canada:

(Photo courtesy of The Canadian Press)

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