Hazel McCallion, 101, was recently reappointed to the board of Canada’s largest airport as she forges ahead with a career that has included being a city mayor for 36 years and playing professional hockey.
Her tenacity earned her the nickname “Hurricane Hazel.”
“I don’t know how it came about (that) they call me ‘Hurricane Hazel,'” she said in an interview with AFP at a Mississauga, Ontario exhibit celebrating her life, adding with a boisterous laugh: “I know I move quickly.”
And nothing seems to stop her. Throughout her long life, she says she followed the mantra: work hard and be prepared.
“Hard work never killed anybody, my mother told me that,” she said. “If you want to go anywhere you have to work hard.”
Born in 1921, in Port Daniel, Quebec, Hazel is the youngest of five children. Her father worked in the fishing industry while her mother was a nurse.
She left the family farm at age 16 to continue her education, before taking up secretarial work during the Second World War at a Montreal engineering firm.
She also played on a professional women’s hockey team for two seasons, losing two teeth while earning Can$5 (US$4) per match, which she described as “a princely sum in those days.”
In 1951, she married Sam McCallion with whom she had three children.
“She wasn’t always there, but she was there when she needed to be,” recalled her son Peter McCallion, describing her as a “wonderful” grandmother to her only granddaughter.
– ‘Feel that you’re contributing’ –
Inspired by former Ottawa mayor Charlotte Whitton — the first female mayor of a major Canadian city — and Margaret Thatcher, she entered politics in the 1960s.
In 1978, she won the mayoralty of Mississauga on the shores of Lake Ontario, neighbouring Toronto — helped at the polls by her refusal to be baited by her opponent’s sexist remarks during the campaign.
Today, she spurns questions on gender and politics. “It has not been difficult at all. I have been supported by men both in business and in politics,” she said, adding that she’s been “fortunate.”
McCallion has left an indelible mark on Mississauga, which has dramatically changed over the past decades as it grew to become Canada’s seventh largest city.
She had been in office only a few months when a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in a populated area of the city, and erupted in flames.
McCallion gained a national profile for managing the mass evacuation of 220,000 residents, in which nobody died or was seriously injured.
“To live a happy life you have to be very positive and you have to feel that you’re contributing. You can’t think of ‘me’ all the time,” she says, explaining her commitment to public service.
She would be re-elected 11 more times to lead the city of Mississauga, making her one of Canada’s longest serving mayors.
According to Tom Urbaniak, author of a book on Mississauga under her watch, her longevity in politics is due to her strong personality and accessibility, but also “her down-to-Earth populism” and outspokenness.
“Hazel McCallion leans towards conservatism but she is extremely pragmatic,” said the Cape Breton University professor, who noted her support for political parties of all stripes.
The self-described “builder” was voted most popular mayor, before retiring three years later at age 93.
A stamp collector, McCallion says she enjoys gardening and making videos for charitable causes, and keeps up with the news, wearing a yellow and blue ribbon on her lapel to show support for Ukraine at war.
“I’ve lived one hundred years and I’ve never felt so negative about what is happening in the world today,” she laments. “It’s very disturbing.”