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'A giant': Friends and dignitaries remember former Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion

Known affectionately as 'Hurricane Hazel,' McCallion was remembered for her great sense of humour and as an icon who transformed the city west of Toronto into one of Canada's largest urban centres
Hazel McCallion, a political powerhouse and the longtime former mayor of Mississauga, Ont., is set to be remembered at a state funeral today. Signage for the book of condolences is on display as the late Hazel McCallion lies in state at Mississauga City Hall in Mississauga, Ont. on Sunday, February 12, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

When Jean Chrétien announced his retirement almost two decades ago, he got a phone call from the mayor of Mississauga, Ont.

Hazel McCallion, a longtime friend of the prime minister, began teasing him.

"'We kind of agreed that we should retire together so when I quit at 70, she called me to give me hell," Chrétien, 89, recalled at the state funeral for McCallion on Tuesday.

"I said, 'I'm not as tough as you...I'm a chicken.'"

"In all my travels and meetings with leaders around the globe, I have never met any politician like Hazel."

Laughter from dozens of community members and politicians echoed through the local arena as those who spoke told stories about interactions they'd had with the political force of nature on what would have been her 102nd birthday.

McCallion died at her home on Jan. 29 – family friend Jim Murray said she died of pancreatic cancer, which she was diagnosed with around Christmas.

Known affectionately as "Hurricane Hazel,'' McCallion was remembered for her great sense of humour and as an icon who transformed the city west of Toronto into one of Canada's largest urban centres. She developed a legacy of no-nonsense advocacy during 36 years as mayor of Mississauga, retiring from the office at the age of 96.

McCallion was widely respected by politicians across the spectrum and was even more revered by constituents, who voted her into office with landslide victories for 12 successive terms.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reminisced about going ziplining between two mountains in Italy with McCallion 15 years ago on "one of the longest, highest and fastest ziplines in the world."

"Hazel was so unstoppable, I think we all felt she was going to live forever," he said.

"She was a true nation-builder in a nation of builders," he said.

"She always held true to her belief of putting people at the centre of everything we do ... for all of us let that be the enduring lesson and legacy of the great Hazel McCallion."

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said McCallion never hesitated to say what was on her mind, and never lost sight of why she entered public life – "to serve the people."

"Hazel McCallion was a giant," said Ford. "There isn’t a single person who met Hazel who didn’t leave in awe of her force of personality."

Speaking before the funeral, Manjula Rach, a 83-year-old Mississauga resident, cried as she remembered how her dear friend McCallion drove to her home every year for 13 years to borrow a saree that she could wear for Diwali celebrations because they were the same size.

"She calls me 'my sister,'" said Rach.

"I miss her very much. It's hard to miss such a good friend."

Jan Gerrard, who was McCallion's neighbour, said she'd known her for 50 years.

"You couldn't know Hazel for a period of time without becoming a friend," she said.

Barbara Koloszyc, a Polish resident of Mississauga for 37 years, remembered McCallion as a mayor who "was everywhere."

"I have great memories of her being with every single community in Mississauga," Koloszyc said as she held back tears.

"She knew every single corner of Mississauga."

McCallion was mayor of Streetsville for three years before the northwestern neighbourhood amalgamated with Port Credit and the town of Mississauga in 1974 to form the city – which is now the third largest in Ontario and sixth largest in Canada.

The city's current mayor, Bonnie Crombie, spoke about how McCallion changed her destiny by convincing her to lead the city.

"It was clear even long after her time in politics, she never stopped lending her voice and she never stopped moving," Crombie said during the funeral.

"Let's not forget that she was the runner-up for the World Mayor in 2005. She certainly did extend beyond our borders."

Ontario's lieutenant-governor said McCallion's life was a "life of purpose."

She believed strongly in local government and its power to make a difference in the lives of residents, Elizabeth Dowdeswell said.

"She was a trailblazer, an innovator, a fighter, a pragmatist – just getting things done," said Dowdeswell. "Hazel was a politician who focused not on our differences but rather on the commonalities that bind us together."

Murray noted that McCallion, who he called the "architect" of Mississauga, had planned her own funeral.

"Hazel made all the arrangements for here today, do not be confused," he said. "This clearly would have been her largest birthday celebration ever."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 14, 2023.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

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