Hazel McCallion – Political trailblazer who served as the fifth mayor of Mississauga

During the time of recording, Hazel McCallion was retired from serving as Mayor of Mississauga. However, since the recording, Hazel McCallion unfortunately passed away on January 29, 2023.

She was one of the longest-serving mayors in Canadian history, and under her leadership Mississauga grew to be the 6th largest city in Canada. Hazel is a Canadian legend, sought out by prime ministers and premiers and inspiring thousands.

She joined us on The Honest Talk to discuss her childhood where she witnessed the Great Depression, her secret to political success, her thoughts on politics today, and why she has always worked to prove herself at the local level. Hazel also talks about how she would like to be remembered and gives some valuable advice to young women about speaking their minds.

Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Catherine Clark: You’ve made your life in Ontario, and everyone knows you as a longtime mayor here in Ontario. But you were actually born in the Gaspé region of Quebec. And you were the youngest of five. You grew up there in the 1920s and 30s. Can you paint a picture for us of your life at that time? What was like life like for you as a young kid?

Hazel McCallion: I witnessed the Depression for one thing, and not a recession, the real Depression as a kid. We had very little money. We had to make do. It was a wonderful learning experience. If you have a hardship during your young days, it teaches you to be frugal, teaches you how to value a dollar, and teaches you you have to become independent. You have to depend on your own ability to survive and not depend on your parents to help you at all when you need money. 

Jennifer Stewart: When you had to leave home at 14 and you’re a Depression kid, you have to become completely independent, you don’t call home for money? How do you think growing up as a Depression kid impacted your terms as mayor?

Hazel McCallion: It taught me the value of a dollar.

I always promised the citizens I would get value for the dollar that they paid in taxes to the city, they would get value for it. 

Jennifer Stewart: And also to stay in touch, right? I also read that every week or when you went grocery shopping, you would go to a different store each time. So, you’d get that different experience and you’d be able to speak to people. How did you stay for such a long tenure as mayor? How did you stay in touch with your constituents, as the city evolved with the people of Mississauga?

Hazel McCallion: That’s not a nine to five job. It’s seven o’clock in the morning until 11 at night. I was taught by my mother that if you take on a job, you give it all you can to be a success. I wanted to be the best mayor that Mississauga ever had. Well, to do that, you got to work hard. And you got to give it the time and be with the people. Make sure that they have an opportunity to speak with you. Most politicians try to keep their phone number out of the phonebook. My phone number was always in the book, so any citizen of Mississauga could get in touch with me.

I wanted to be the best mayor that Mississauga ever had.

Hazel McCallion

Catherine Clark: That really is an all-consuming job. Why did you want to be that kind of mayor? Why did you want to be so open, that your phone number was in the book and literally anyone could call you up in the middle of dinner?

Hazel McCallion: Mother taught me very clearly, if you want to be a success, you got to work hard, and you got to give it the time that is required to be a success. No matter what job you’re doing. If you’re going to do something, make sure that you’re determined to do it to the best of your ability.

Jennifer Stewart: You were a partner, you were also a mother. What do you say to women that want to have a really successful career, but also feel pulled in so many directions?

Hazel McCallion: It’s entirely up to the individual. They have to decide. What is their plan? You have to plan your life. Sometimes your plan doesn’t work out, and you have to change it. But the point is, you better have a plan about how you want to live on this earth.

Catherine Clark: Did things always work out for you according to your plan?

Hazel McCallion: No. And no plan is perfect. You got to change it. You got to review it. Everything is based on planning, not waiting for crisis to occur.

Jennifer Stewart: You essentially built a city and you built a reputation as one of the most respected Canadians. Are you happy with how those plans turned out, both your life and your political life?

Hazel McCallion: I think we had some ups and downs. But we took a chunk out of the area that was a rural area and built it into the sixth largest city in Canada. That is not easy to do. You don’t do it alone, you have to have a good team. You have to have good employees that are committed to the plan to be successful. And you have to have good counsellors. I was fortunate over the years, even when it was very stressful, to have some very able counsellors. 

Jennifer Stewart: And in your personal life, I read that your partner let you do your thing and supported you. We often talk about the value of an important partner or an important person in your life.

Hazel McCallion: He had his business to run, and he ran it very well. And he let me be in politics. He was happy with me being in politics. I didn’t neglect the family in any way. I raised three children. It was tough. But again, it depended on your planning. You had to plan each day. When you get up in the morning I had three children to get ready for school. Planning is so important.

Catherine Clark: When you were running for mayor, the incumbent at the time brought up gender and said that, in your case, gender was a weakness. Do you remember how you felt when you heard that?

Hazel McCallion: I didn’t agree with that. He made a very bad statement and women just made sure I won the election.

Jennifer Stewart: And then you won election after election. What was your secret to political success?

Hazel McCallion: Well, you know, the last couple of elections, I didn’t have any campaign. I didn’t have any election signs. I didn’t raise any money. If you work hard, and enjoy that, people appreciate what you’ve done. I just said, “I’m running as fair.” And that was it.

Catherine Clark: Have you enjoyed living a life that’s an open book? You don’t mind that people really know so much about you?

Hazel McCallion: There’s nothing wrong with being an open book. I remember when I got the Order of Canada. I was shocked. Because you don’t get the Order of Canada when you’re in political office. They gave me the Order of Canada when I was Mayor of Mississauga. 

Jennifer Stewart: Who’s the most interesting person you’ve met over the course of your life?

Hazel McCallion: I met the Queen, and I think she’s a very, very sincere person, very down to earth. The other was Charlotte Whitton, who was Mayor of Ottawa. A very capable woman I admired a lot. I’m a great supporter of women. I think we women have to support women.

Catherine Clark: Would you encourage women to go into politics? 

Hazel McCallion: Definitely. We need more women in politics. I think of the Deputy Prime Minister. I have great admiration for her, and I hope someday she’ll be Prime Minister of Canada. A very capable woman. 

We need more women in politics

Hazel McCallion

Catherine Clark: How do you feel about politics right now? Because it sure seems to be different from even when I was growing up in terms of the level of partisanship and the way people really go after each other now. Does that affect your own perception of politics right now?

Hazel McCallion: I think there seems to be a lack of leadership with great vision for the future of Canada. I think we lack leadership throughout the world. Quite honestly, we have some bad leaders. Like we have Putin, that’s, in my opinion, another heckler. I think we have to have leaders that have strong conviction of serving people, and not for position. 

I never had any desire to go provincially or federally, I wanted to do the best job as a local mayor, to be recognized for the work I did, as a good mayor. I didn’t aim to go higher and higher. I want to be close to the people. I didn’t want to sit in Queen’s Park or Ottawa as a backbencher. I want to be out with the people. And you can’t do it if you’re provincial or federal because you have your obligations to be in the legislatures. Whereas mayor, you’re free to give as much time as you want to your community.

Jennifer Stewart: Do you think that some of this lack of leadership that you spoke of can be attributed to us being hyper-partisan at the provincial and federal level? Where we’re always working on that election cycle versus maybe thinking more strategically?

Hazel McCallion: I don’t want to be critical of provincial or federal people, because I haven’t been one.  I don’t know how I would operate. I never wanted to be one. I was asked to run by the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP. I said no.

Catherine Clark: What advice do you have for women about speaking up and speaking out and having their voices heard?

Hazel McCallion: It’s important they do their homework before they speak up. Just remember that a woman can’t make a mistake. Because it’s highlighted. A man can make a mistake and it’s overlooked by other men. A woman making a mistake is not overlooked by other women.

Jennifer Stewart: How do you want to be remembered? 

Hazel McCallion: I’d like to be remembered by what I’ve been able to accomplish, so that other young women will look at me and say, “Well, maybe I can do it as well.” 

I hope that other young women can look back and say, “She didn’t have the university education or college education. She had a high school education and she was able to accomplish all these things.”  I didn’t go to university and I didn’t go to college. I was a Depression kid. I’m Chancellor of Sheridan College, and they always wanted me to mention those things to show students that here you are, you’ve had a broad education, you’ve had the opportunity to be well educated in the sector. Now, what are you going to do with your life?

    Want to be our guest? Let us know!