Mississauga’s Mayor ‘Hurricane’ Hazel Readies Her Exit

After almost four decades Mississauga, Toronto’s upstart neighbor, is emerging from under the eye of “Hurricane Hazel.”

Mayor Hazel McCallion, 93, stepping back from politics after 12 terms in office, earned that moniker by overseeing the city’s transformation into one of Canada’s largest municipalities. While Toronto has sometimes attracted mockery thanks to the crack-smoking antics of mayor Rob Ford, Mississauga has exploded from a suburb of fields and farms into the country’s sixth-largest city with a AAA credit rating.

“When I was elected mayor in 1978, where we sit right now, all these buildings were farmland, cows and horses grazed out front,” McCallion said from behind a massive wooden desk heavy with paperwork and knick-knacks. “We began as a bedroom community of Toronto in which people went out in the morning and came home at night. We’ve reversed that.”

Her desk-side window now overlooks a downtown core filled with office buildings and a city with a population of about 750,000 that’s home to the Canadian head offices of dozens of Fortune 500 companies including General Electric Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

“We went after international investment,” McCallion said in an interview in her office at City Hall. “We’re considered a pharmaceutical center, and we’re very diverse.”

Train Derailment

The city and McCallion have been more or less synonymous since 1979, when the then first-term mayor led an evacuation of some 200,000 people away from a train derailment.

The event was transformational, cementing McCallion’s reputation as both the mother figure and savior of Mississauga, said Tom Urbaniak, an associate professor at Cape Breton University in Sydney, Nova Scotia who wrote a book on the history of Mississauga and McCallion.

“She’s lived and breathed the position of mayor for 36 years,” Urbaniak, author of 2009’s “Her Worship,” said in a phone interview. “To her there’s no difference between her personal life and her life as mayor. That work has sustained and propelled her.”

Today’s election in Mississauga will be the first in 36 years not to have McCallion’s name on the ballot. Bonnie Crombie, a former Member of Parliament and city councilor for Mississauga who has received McCallion’s endorsement, and Steve Mahoney, a cabinet minister in the government of former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, are the frontrunners.

AAA Rating

Nicknamed after the deadly 1954 storm, McCallion has held one of the longest mayoral tenures in the world.

“There may be other mayors who have served longer than McCallion but none are from large cities,” Tann vom Hove, a senior fellow with the nonprofit City Mayors Foundation, said in an e-mail from London.

The city eliminated its debt during her tenure and had been debt-free for more than 30 years -- until last year when it raised C$50 million ($45 million) to pay for infrastructure improvements such as replacing streetlights with LEDs.

Mississauga still has a shortfall of almost C$1 billion in capital project needs from 2014 to 2023 that can’t be funded under the existing budget, and additional funds will need to be borrowed, according to city documents.

Standard & Poor’s in September affirmed the city’s AAA credit rating with a stable outlook. Mississauga’s debt burden is forecast to rise to C$168 million by the end of 2016, a manageable figure, the ratings firm said.

Diverse Economy

“Mississauga has what we view as a strong and diverse economy, and we do not expect that it will weaken materially in the medium term,” analysts Adam Gillespie and Bhavini Patel said in the report.

McCallion says she doesn’t regret going into debt at the end of her tenure, as she had known the city would eventually need to borrow to pay for improvements. She does regret not coming up with a stronger transit system and not building a convention center.

Richard Leblanc, an associate professor at York University in Toronto, said McCallion was in power for too long and municipalities need term limits.

“It blocks renewal and fresh thinking,” he said by phone. “Having someone as the leader for almost 40 years is a failure of governance.”

McCallion’s pragmatism is ultimately what led her to declare this her last term, Urbaniak said. She was weakened after she beat a conflict of interest complaint in 2013 related to her son’s development company.

“She can read the public better than any politician,” he said. “She sensed, while there’s great respect for her as an icon, that there was growing fatigue.”

For her part, McCallion said she is proud of how Mississauga has developed in her time and her role as an inspiration for women.

“A lot of women across Canada said I inspired them to enter politics. I feel very satisfied with that,” she said. “I wouldn’t say I’m a role model. I leave that up to others to determine.”

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