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For Hazel McCallion, the campaign never stops

Hazel McCallion

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Hazel McCallion is already five hours into her day when I show up at her modest two-storey Mississauga home, expecting literally to get down in the weeds with her.

The Mississauga mayor's assistant had scheduled a gardening date for the two of us at 10:30 a.m. and I arrive in casual clothes and sneakers with a pair of gardening gloves in my bag. I'm certain there has been some miscommunication when the 93-year-old Ms. McCallion answers the door. She's dressed in a version of the Murphy Brown meets Jane Austen outfit she routinely wears to council meetings: a loud turquoise jacket, a greyish blue pair of trousers hiked up just below her bust and a white feminine blouse with a cameo brooch at the scalloped collar.

She leads me through the house she bought in 1987 and into the expansive backyard. The swimming pool, in the back, is ringed by an established perennial garden: It has ornamental grasses, cotton candy-coloured peonies, mature evergreens and a magnolia tree. I ask if there's any weeding to be done, flowers to be watered.

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"I was up at 5:30 this morning. I did all the work before," Ms. McCallion says gruffly, after we sit down at one of two patio tables under the gazebo at the front of her yard. Luckily, I've already had tea and a muffin because she doesn't offer me anything.

Before I'd arrived, she let out her long-haired German Shepherd Missy (yes, named after the city she governs), cleaned the pool, tended to the garden, disposed of the carcasses of three rabbits Missy had killed and attended a breakfast meeting with the CEO of Enersource, Mississauga's local electricity distributor.

Old habits die hard and the 5:30 a.m. wake up calls will almost certainly follow her into retirement. This fall's municipal election is the first in 36 years that Ms. McCallion won't be running in, although her calendar suggests she's in campaign mode. She says that even her three children, one of whom lives in the neighbourhood, have to call her scheduling assistant if they want to make plans with her.

"I carry on as if the election was tomorrow. What a lot of politicians do is to be inactive for the first part of their term and when an election's coming they show up at every event," she says. "It makes no difference that I'm retiring as of November the 30th."

She hasn't campaigned in a traditional sense since the early nineties but has easily won every election with a strong mandate, even the most recent one when a conflict of interest case was looming. (In 2011, a judge ruled she had a "real and apparent" conflict when, in council, she supported a bid for a downtown convention centre project in which her son was involved, but noted she did not break the letter of the law so she stayed in office. She's survived two other conflict accusations.)

On a recent Saturday, Ms. McCallion spent eight hours glad-handing at a halal food festival, the Healthy Living Expo and the opening of both a community pool and a farmer's market. It seems even tedious weekend ribbon cuttings develop an appeal after you've been doing them for 12 terms – although she could do without all the photographs.

"The worst thing that ever happened was when they put cameras on phones," Ms. McCallion says, rubbing her fingers over the topography of her wrinkled left temple. "I get stopped on the street. I go to these events. I go to the festivals, and I can't get around to the booths because it's picture, picture, picture."

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And that kind of instant recognition presents a serious challenge for those vying to replace her: A 12-term mayoralty has bred apathy in the city – or at least that's what voter turnout suggests. While most Mississaugans recognize her, not many can claim to have voted for her – or her opponents for that matter. In the last five municipal elections, an average of 25.5 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots.

In 1978, Ms. McCallion inherited a city of fewer than 290,000 people – a collection of mostly rural communities west of Toronto that had amalgamated four years earlier. Under her leadership, the city grew to 752,000. She courted developers with vast tracts of empty land and they, in turn, built a skyline that many travellers mistake for Toronto during their descent into Pearson International Airport. For decades, the building boom filled Mississauga's coffers with development fees, which kept property tax increases extremely low, and made Ms. McCallion a very popular mayor.

But now that the city is nearly built out, council has hiked property taxes and gone into debt for the first time. This week, council voted to raise development charges to bring in new revenue for the city. Ms. McCallion had said it was the only way to begin to tackle the city's $75-million to $80-million annual infrastructure deficit without raising property taxes again. The City Hazel Built is not the one she'll be leaving behind.

Though she's adopted the lingo and ideals of a new urbanist in her last two terms in office, campaigning hard to bring rapid transit and density into the city's core, during much of her time in office, she let developers dictate how the city would be planned.

"We had the advantage – and maybe it might have been a disadvantage – we had two large developers that came in and bought up thousands of acres of land. But they put a plan on the entire thing. It wasn't haphazard development," she says.

Sure they accounted for schools, and community centres, but much of the city is low-density, I point out. Mississauga has become the butt of many jokes about bad planning.

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"People coming into Mississauga were not coming to rent an apartment, they were coming for a single-family home from Toronto and other areas," she explains, her voice rising. "Builders don't buy houses that don't sell. If they had built apartment buildings, they would've remained vacant. The city has developed in a way people wanted it to develop.

"If you call that urban sprawl –" she pauses to chuckle, "I guess it is. It's what the people wanted and it's what the developers built knowing what the people wanted."

Ms. McCallion's sustained popularity over three decades is the stuff politicians at every level of government dream of and only those in the smallest municipalities have ever pulled off. She's been courted by provincial and federal politicians, even encouraged to run for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party in 1982. She released a ringing endorsement for Kathleen Wynne's Ontario Liberals this spring, which may have helped the party win seats in all four ridings in Mississauga. Ms. McCallion says she never aspired to a higher office than the one of mayor, though.

"It's the most satisfying level of government. You're with your people and you can accomplish things. The city was a rural community. We built it into the sixth-largest city in Canada."

She routinely touts her accomplishments in building an economic base for Mississauga by attracting dozens of Fortune 500 companies to the city, but it's her populist streak she wants documented in the history books. When asked how she'd like to be remembered, takes a long pause: "Oh, I don't know" before taking another pause, the wrinkles on her face tightening up in concentration.

"The people's mayor," she says.

Ms. McCallion is the oldest mayor in Canada, possibly the oldest in the world (it's a difficult title to confirm: the Guinness Book of World Records traces heaviest and youngest mayor but not oldest). Until she announced her plans not to seek re-election in 2010, Mississaugans openly mused that their mayor would stay in office until she dropped dead.

A few council colleagues have suggested she ought to give up driving at her age in favour of having a driver like many other mayors in the country (it's to save costs, she says – when she travels internationally, she usually leaves her staff at home). Those calls were renewed a few weeks ago when she was in a minor collision – and not the first in the past few years – while behind the wheel of her Chevy Volt. She gets her back up about those exhortations, which carry a whiff of ageism.

"After 80, you have to go for your drivers' [test] every two years. If a lot of people much younger than I went for their drivers' [test] the way I do, I don't think they'd get it," she says bluntly.

This brusqueness can be disarming to those who meet their mayor for the first time. The sweet grandmother stereotype begins and ends with Ms. McCallion's physical appearance (and perhaps the fact that she pronounces "et cetera" as "and cetera").

When Missy tries to nuzzle against her leg as we're talking, she swats her away in disgust. "Go away, you smell!" she chides. The dog had been sprayed by a skunk in the front yard the previous night and Ms. McCallion hadn't yet had a chance to hose her down with diluted laundry detergent (her preferred method of deodorizing).

The only thing Ms. McCallion has given up driving is her ride-on lawnmower. As she gives me a tour of the yard, bending down to pluck a stray dandelion from her otherwise pristine lawn, she says she outsourced the task three years ago not because she couldn't handle it but because she hasn't had the time.

Most lifestyle choices, even now as she winds down, are dictated by how much time she has available – including her eating schedule.

Ms. McCallion usually disappoints those who ask after her diet – what secret elixir has warded off senility, which self-imposed restrictions have allowed her to work at the same pace she did half a century ago.

She isn't on any medications, but takes iron supplements and fish oil caplets. She eats a lot of vegetables. She skips lunch most days – if she has a bowl of cereal for breakfast, that's enough to fuel her till dinner (on the day of my visit, I stay at her house until noon and only when leading me out she remembers she hasn't even offered me a cup of coffee). Dinners are often eaten at evening meetings or banquets, where she'll ask for fish. Growing up in the coastal Gaspe region of Quebec, she says: "I ate fish five, six days a week. And they were all fresh." She can't tell me the last thing she made for dinner because she can't remember the last time she cooked dinner.

While she looks forward to reconnecting with old friends she put off during her days in office (at least the ones who are still alive), retirement won't be dinner parties and gardening. Ms. McCallion said she plans to have an active public life, in which she wants to advocate for more power for municipalities. This fall, she's releasing her memoirs, co-written with Robert Brehl.

"I'm not retiring to travel, I can tell you that," she says.

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The life of Hazel

Entertainment

Hazel McCallion prides herself on not knowing a lick about pop culture. She can't remember the last film she saw or TV show she watched (besides the news or sports). When she heard Regis Philbin was coming to her 80th birthday party, she asked her staff who he was. The last play she watched was Crazy for You at the Stratford Festival.

Dining out

Most of Ms. McCallion's dinners are consumed at restaurant meetings, banquets or community functions. When asked for her favourite restaurant in Mississauga, she said: "I won't name any in the story. You want to get me in trouble on that one."

Gardening

Ms. McCallion grew up on a farm and inherited an established garden when she and her late husband Sam bought their Streetsville home in the late eighties. While the garden has much more to offer, she says the humble pansy is her favourite plant. "They're so colourful – there's such a wide variety of colour."

Fishing

The only leisure travel Ms. McCallion takes is for fishing trips. Last summer, a video of her fishing with her mayoral counterpart, Rob Ford, went viral: In it, Mr. Ford grabs Ms. McCallion's waist to steady her as she reels in a 16-pound chinook salmon. But it was hardly her most impressive catch: Once, in Costa Rica, she caught a 110-pound sailfish.

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About the Author

Dakshana Bascaramurty is a national news reporter who writes about race and ethnicity. She won a 2013 National Newspaper Award in beat reporting for her coverage of changing demographics in the 905 region. Previously, she was a feature writer for Globe Life. More

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