September 11, 2015 3:18 pm
Updated: September 11, 2015 7:42 pm

‘My choice is Justin’: Lunch with ex-Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion – and giving Trudeau’s candidates hell

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WATCH ABOVE: Former Mayor of Mississauga Hazel McCallion sat down with Global News’ Laura Stone to discuss politics, including the upcoming federal election and what residents in Mississauga are talking about.

MISSISSAUGA, ONT. – Hazel McCallion hunches over the table in an oversized black booth at Cagneys Steakhouse & Wine Bar, an ostentatious supper club that seems more suited to the Las Vegas strip than a suburban strip mall in Streetsville.

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But the 94-year-old recently-retired mayor of this sprawling city west of Toronto loves it.

“I was here last night with Glen Murray – (Ontario) minister of the environment,” she announces in her raspy tone, as the waitress nervously pours water for the most familiar nonagenarian in Mississauga.

McCallion drove herself here – she drives herself everywhere, and still lives on her own – to talk federal politics in the lead-up to one of the most competitive races in years.

It’s a topic she knows a thing or two about.

McCallion was – and inarguably, still is – a hugely popular politician who served 44 years municipally. This includes 36 years as Mississauga’s mayor, negotiating with eight prime ministers for more federal investment in her rapidly-growing community.

“Infrastructure in Canada has been neglected for the last 20 years, and it needs now a major, major surgery, major injection,” she says.

“I don’t think they’ll ever catch up, but they need to really put a lot of money in it.”

Despite saying before we meet that she won’t be endorsing anyone this election, McCallion appears to change her mind.

And her blessing in the six ridings around Mississauga, and elsewhere in the Greater Toronto Area known as the 905, matters. A lot.

WATCH: Hazel McCallion talks to Global News about the federal election.

McCallion endorsed Toronto mayor John Tory, Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals in Ontario, and former Liberal MP Bonnie Crombie, her successor as Mississauga mayor last year.

Now, it’s Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s turn.

“My choice is Justin as prime minister of Canada,” McCallion declares.

“He’s a young man with a vision. This lack of experience – age is strictly a matter of mind over matter,” she laughs.

But McCallion – deeply creased in the face, effervescent on the inside – doesn’t let anyone off the hook.

Partway through our lunch, she receives a phone call.

“Hello? Hello? Hello?” repeats McCallion, a petite presence dressed in a powder blue outfit with beaded wooden choker.

It turns out to be Gagan Sikand, the Liberal candidate in Mississauga-Streetsville, who is taking on Conservative incumbent Brad Butt. He wants McCallion to attend his campaign office opening. (Sikand didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)

McCallion is having none of it.

“I haven’t heard your name around at all. Nobody’s been talking about you,” she says.

“What have you done in the community to get your name known?”

It goes on like this for several minutes.

“If you want to win an election, you’ve got to get known in the community to some degree. And obviously you’ve not joined any club or helped with any volunteer work,” she tells him.

“So that’s a big strike against you.”

Eventually Sikand gives up.

“You heard my question. He wouldn’t answer,” McCallion tells me afterwards.

“What have you done in the community? He had to admit, very little. Now he expects to win.”

I ask how this squares with her Trudeau endorsement. McCallion says winning elections takes both a strong leader – something she says the Liberals lacked in 2011 under Michael Ignatieff – as well as hardworking candidates who get involved in the community.

“You see how honest I am. I tell them the way it is. I didn’t have to do that,” she says.

“I think maybe the advice I gave him will help him. Otherwise, he doesn’t have a hope, you know what I mean?”

‘A real concern of mine’

The nervous waitress delivers McCallion’s Greek salad – part of the healthy diet of vegetables, fruit, fish and chicken she credits with keeping her mind and body active at almost a century old.

Of course, she has her indulgences.

“I need salt!” she commands.

The biggest issue now on McCallion’s mind has nothing to do with her – and everything to do with her 24-year-old granddaughter, who recently moved in with McCallion in Streetsville – the quaint, old-timey community in the city’s northwest.

“The system is not working for the young people of Canada. The unemployment is very high,” McCallion says.

“That’s a real concern of mine.”

She insists she’s not a party person, and her endorsements have to do with a party’s platform – not affiliation.

“I will judge the party based on what they’re prepared to do for Canadians,” she says.

“People in Mississauga, and even beyond, know that if I support someone it’s for a good reason.”

To that, she sees much to admire in Trudeau’s plan – “his platform is more concerned about people” – including a pledge to double federal infrastructure investment to almost $125 billion over the next decade.

“Infrastructure creates a lot of jobs, and that’s not just transit and roads and bridges, etc. It’s education, it’s hospitals, it’s schools, it’s universities,” she says.

“It’s been ignored because (the federal government) didn’t see the competition that is existing in other parts of the world. They felt that we could rely on our natural resources, on oil and gas, and we can’t. The future is brainpower, in my opinion.”

McCallion says she sees a change coming to Canada – including Mississauga, where four of six seats are currently held by Conservatives. (The other two seats are new, with no incumbents.)

“There is a change,” she says.

“Our middle class is going down. And the rich are getting richer. That’s what’s happening.”

And McCallion believes Conservative leader Stephen Harper’s fortunes are falling.

“He seems to control everything. I’ve talked to people who are sort of on the inside. He over-controls his cabinet,” she says, slowly spreading garlic butter on warm bread.

“Right now they’re talking about balancing the budget. People without a job, (they’re) not interested in the budget being balanced.”

What about the NDP?

“Their chances here are slim. I think their biggest hope is Quebec.”

McCallion claims another worry among residents is the bombing mission against ISIS.

“Canada is known throughout the world…as a peace-loving nation. We were the nation that went in and cleaned up after a disaster in a country,” she says.

“I sense from the people I talk to, the average men and women on the street, is concern that Harper has taken us into the war zone.”

I ask McCallion if she, as mayor, had a good relationship with Conservatives.

“Oh, yeah,” she says.

After a pause, she adds: “I’m prepared to take them all on.”

‘You have to work hard’

Now that she’s retired, McCallion only has five jobs.

There’s her work for the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association (where she’s off to after lunch); in her honourary position for Mississauga’s hospitals; as an advisor at both the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus and to the Ontario premier; and on contract with a local nursing home.

“I’m not anywhere near as busy as I was. I was working seven days a week till all kinds of hours,” McCallion says.

“This is simple.”

McCallion was born in 1921 in Gaspé, Qc., and went straight to work after high school.

“It’s the way I grew up, I just worked hard. Because if you want to get places, you have to work hard,” she says.

Her first job was at a redwood lumber distributor in Montreal, and she was transferred to Toronto to help set up an office to build a synthetic rubber plant in Sarnia, Ont. – “during the war, ’42.”

She then went to work for an American company that “devised the process for taking the oil out of the tar sands.”

She got into politics in her 50s, when she settled in Mississauga with her husband, who ran a printing business in Streetsville.

The former mayor asked her to sit on a planning board, and eventually McCallion became mayor of Streetsville, followed by her historic run as mayor of Mississauga beginning in 1978. She retired last year.

Under her watch, Mississauga tripled from a rural community of about 260,000 to 780,000 – the sixth-largest city in Canada. She predicts the city will eventually rise to close to a million, depending on redevelopment.

McCallion is evidently proud of her work to bring more industrial and commercial enterprise to Mississauga, which has a lower tax rate for businesses than residences.

“That is a major, major accomplishment,” she says.

“Mississauga every morning had an exodus of people to Toronto. We’ve reversed that. There’s more people coming into Mississauga to work than goes out.”

But her time in office did not come without controversy.

A conflict of interest finding in 1982, followed by a dismissed complaint in 2013 regarding her votes to save millions on development charges for her son’s company, served to sour her reputation in some circles.

Today, McCallion brushes it off, preferring to point to the Order of Canada pin on her lapel.

“When you’re in politics, you have enemies,” she says.

“Unfortunately I did have that type of experience here in Mississauga. But you know, I look back on it – as long as your conscience is clear, and you know you’ve done the best you can for people.”

Her biggest regret in office was underestimating the need for transit.

“As we were building, I think we should have…looked at transportation as being a very major, integral part of any development and expansion,” she says.

“That’s our problem in the GTA.”

But McCallion doesn’t like to think about why she’s still going.

Her wrinkled grin betrays a satisfaction with how things have gone – and no desire to stop.

“Whatever I undertake to do, I give it the time, give it the effort, give it the commitment,” she says.

“I don’t just join and then sit back and do nothing.”

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