I sat in a waiting room steps away from Mayor Hazel McCallion’s office on Nov. 3, desperately trying to hear the conversation behind closed doors. I could hear a man, who might charitably be described as boisterous, try to convince his mayor of something or other. I couldn’t hear what. I could hear even less of McCallion’s response. Their meeting ran a bit late, into our scheduled time and, finally, the middle-aged man emerged. “You’re next,” he said with an extra dose of melodrama. Gulp.
A minute later, I sat down across from a mayor who was jovial. She’d passed a driving test early that morning, proof she can still hack it behind the wheel. She delighted in pointing out an award given to her a couple of weeks earlier, in Texas, by the International Economic Development Council. She gleefully gestured to a painting of her hometown of Streetsville, a gift from the city’s transit drivers earlier that week. No doubt McCallion, nearing the end of her final term, is enjoying her legend. Her tenure as mayor stretches all the way back to 1978, when a newly amalgamated Mississauga was in its infancy. Mostly, in fact, it wasn’t a city. Four years prior, then-premier Bill Davis had forced the marriage of the region’s proud towns, including Streetsville, and the open space between them dwarfed any developed land. McCallion oversaw the city’s eventual evolution into the country’s sixth-largest municipality. She was popular all the while: Twice acclaimed, she won more than 90 per cent of the votes as recently as 2006.
As she retires from 40 years in elected politics, McCallion sat down with Maclean’s to talk about a life in politics, how many times she was tempted to leave her job, and what she thinks of Toronto Mayor John Tory.
When was the first time a reporter asked you about change? Just how long have people been walking into this office and asking about your legacy?
The change has been dramatic. When I was elected in 1978, and drove to the office building which was the city hall built by McLachlin when he got Square One approved, cows and horses were grazing right over here. None of these buildings were here.
In a sense, everything has changed.
The whole city core has changed, but the city itself has changed drastically since then. We’re now mature, to a certain degree, not completely. We built a city from a rural area. We were a bedroom community. Everybody went out in the morning and came home at night to sleep. We’ve reversed that. There are more people coming into Mississauga now—many more—than go out in the morning. We’ve created an urban centre, the largest urban centre around Toronto. And we’re the sixth-largest city in Canada, took in over half a million people. Established an economic base, which is almost ideal—62 per cent residential, 38 per cent industrial commercial. And 60/40 is the ideal, if you want to keep your taxes in line. We took it from 18/72 to 62/38. That’s change.
You didn’t start your career as the mayor of Mississauga. You were mayor of Streetsville.
Yes, I started as deputy reeve of Streetsville. I was appointed reeve, and then was mayor for three years. Brought Streetsville in [to amalgamation] debt-free, and opposed the amalgamation strongly. We had two very large developers that owned thousands of acres, and had put a plan on their acreage. They didn’t just buy it and set it aside. They had a plan, and a good plan—a plan that provided parks and trails and artificial lakes. They wanted their investment to produce good profit, and it did. The [new] city, in ’78, we were in debt. I got it out of debt, or we got it out of debt. I don’t like using the word “I,” because it’s we who got it out of debt: the staff and the councillors that served.
How much are you thinking about contributing to Mississauga’s future?
I’ve given 36 years to this city and the citizens. It’s part of my life, a very important part of my life. I was in the private sector before I entered the public sector, but Mississauga’s just become a part of my life. I’ve seen it grow from 260,000 people to 750,000. We have 63 of the Fortune 500 head offices in this city. You look at the economic development, and even what’s happened in the city core. It hasn’t been to the degree I would have liked to have seen it, but it’s growing. We don’t have a convention centre. A city of our size should have a convention centre. I tried hard to get one, but it failed.
As a result, the city core has got to become more active than it is now. I believe it will. Other areas have developed with an economic base that would have been great to have in the city core, but the land prices in the city core prevented that from happening.
At what point in your journey from deputy reeve of Streetsville to long-serving mayor of Mississauga did it feel like you were the mayor of a big city?
It was very difficult when regional government came in, in 1974, to get the citizens. Port Credit was a very old community, well-established for many years. Streetsville was another very old community. It was very difficult to get a Mississauga community involvement and spirit going. We tried a city festival, and it died because the areas around were so involved in their communities—in Streetsville, in Port Credit, even in Malton—that it was very difficult for them to realize they were part of a [bigger] city. It’s taken quite a few years, but now I can see Mississauga’s Celebration Square in our city core is bringing the city closer to the city core. It took a long time for people to say, “I’m from Mississauga.”
Toronto is an amalgamated group of former boroughs and cities. Every election brings talk of division in the megacity between suburbs and the downtown core. Toronto’s still having a hard time. Is Mississauga different?
We’ve been able to meld the city together. There’s now a city identity that people are proud of. I can see the different parts of the city that were very separate, working together. We have not had the difficulty that Toronto has.
How has the growing number of political representatives in the GTA changed the power dynamic at Queen’s Park and on Parliament Hill?
I think at Queen’s Park, it has changed a bit. I think Mississauga has a leading role at Queen’s Park with the minister of finance, and with other representatives. I don’t think it’s changed it that much, really. I know that during a provincial and federal election, they seem to zero in on Mississauga. They feel that if they can win the seats in Mississauga, they have a chance of winning the election. I think we have some influence.
But afterward, it doesn’t have a huge impact?
I think we’re recognized as one of the best-managed cities in Canada. In the private sector, if you do a good job, you get compensated. In the public sector, if you do a good job . . . A municipality that does a good job financially does not get the handouts of a municipality that gets into trouble or has great needs. It’s quite different. I’ve learned that, and learned to live with it. You go down to Queen’s Park, and they’ll say, “Well, you’re debt-free. Why do you need help?”
How many times have you been tempted not to run for re-election?
I haven’t been. The reason I haven’t, and I can’t remember once, is because you’re building a city. You’re taking it from a rural area, the challenge and the excitement of working with the staff and the council to build a city. Things were coming our way because a welcome mat was out for industry and commerce. I worked hard on our economic development. It was so exciting that I can’t recall any time that I said, “Gee, I don’t think that I should go this time.”
You were acclaimed twice. Even when you fought elections, you looked around at neighbouring municipalities and saw contemporaries fighting bitter elections. You won a lot, and you won handily.
The last three times, I didn’t run any campaign. I accepted no donations, no signs. My philosophy is you win the election the day after the last one. You give it the same time, the same effort, the day after the last one. So, many politicians slack up after the election and then, about a year before the next election, they start to be out with their citizens at all the events. I see that. I’ve seen it for years. If you want to get re-elected, you gotta be out with your people.
How does that change your job as mayor, after you’ve been acclaimed, versus fighting a tough election?
No, it’s just the same. I win the election the day after the last one. In regard to expenses and taxpayer money, I say I spend their money like I spend my own, which is seldom. They love that. I’ve been blessed with good staff. Every one of the city managers except one, that I’ve lost contact with, are all friends, so that, if they’re anywhere near Mississauga and want to have lunch, [we] sit down and discuss old times. That means a lot. We’ve never had to fire a city manager.
I’m going to be working with the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association. I’ve been on their board for 27 years, helped get them in the Olympics. Girls’ hockey is growing, where boys’ hockey is going down. The OWHA is the only association in the world that separates male and female hockey. It’s very successful. We have to do a lot of work to keep us in the Olympics. We have to encourage other countries. We’re very happy that Russia came in last year with a team. I’ll be doing some work with them on that: promoting women’s hockey and getting sponsorships. It’s difficult for girls’ hockey organizations to get sponsorships, because it’s mainly with the boys.
I will continue to promote and work with the Greater Toronto Marketing Alliance [GTMA] to publicize the Greater Toronto Area internationally. I founded that. I was the founding member of it when we created it 17 years ago. Out of that came a public-private marketing alliance. I was down to Brazil just two weeks ago with them. We’ve brought a lot of international investment to Toronto, and have to do more. We gotta be out there more and more. [The GTMA] was the first to go to India. We were the first to go to Brazil. It’s interesting. Now, [Ontario] Premier [Kathleen] Wynne is over in China. I’ve been to China 14 times. You gotta be out there, promoting your country and your community.
On John Tory’s mayoralty in Toronto:
I think he’s going to provide the leadership that the mayor of Toronto should provide to get us all working together in the GTA. We’re not working together—traffic, congestion, gridlock. There’s no assembly of mayors to sit down and say: What are our priorities? How can we get moving? [John Tory] is a strong supporter of the Greater Toronto Area working together for the good of the whole. Toronto can’t do it alone. In fact, the municipalities around Toronto will overtake Toronto shortly. Population-wise, we’re equal. There are a lot of little elephants growing around Toronto, the big elephant. If a company locates in Mississauga, people will come work for them from Milton or Oakville or Brampton or Toronto.
What does it mean when municipalities around Toronto outgrow it?
I think it’s good for Toronto. The GTA is the economic engine of Canada, and it’s not operating on all cylinders. We need to be operating on all cylinders.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.